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Op-Ed

One expensive housekeeper

Meg Whitman will pay Nicandra Diaz Santillan $5,500 in back pay, but the episode with the former housekeeper was much more costly to Whitman than that.

November 19, 2010

It is particularly rich — pardon the expression — that Meg Whitman this week tied up one of the remaining loose ends of her gubernatorial campaign by agreeing to pay her former housekeeper $5,500.

Whitman, you'll remember, spent more of her own money in her race for governor than any candidate for any office in American history. And she lost. There are plenty of explanations for that, but one has particular salience: her dramatic rejection by Latinos, California's fastest-growing, soon-to-be-majority ethnic group.

Whitman, a Republican, had hoped to fare much better among Latinos, but her efforts were stymied in part by a late-campaign surprise that knocked her badly off message and blunted her outreach. On Sept. 29, her former housekeeper, Nicandra Diaz Santillan, appeared at a Los Angeles news conference and charged that Whitman had underpaid her and then fired her when informed that she was in the country illegally. Whitman fumbled for a response, and ultimately succeeded mainly in convincing hardcore illegal immigrant haters that she was weak for not having the woman deported, and simultaneously convincing Latinos that she was cruel for firing someone she said she regarded as a member of her extended family. Spanish-language radio leaped on the Diaz Santillan allegations; Whitman's popularity among Latinos sank. In the end, only 13% of California's Latino voters backed her.

Now, after a three-hour deliberation before the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, the issue of back pay has been resolved. Whitman did not attend the hearing, though her husband did. Afterward, Whitman's spokesman, Tucker Bounds, reached into his metaphor bag to describe the significance of the controversy. "It's a political soap opera," he told the San Jose Mercury News, "that has drawn its curtains."

But perhaps it didn't have to end the way it did. Whitman, whose net worth is estimated at $1.3 billion, spent more than $144 million to convince Californians that she deserved to be their governor, even though she had no political background and had not even bothered voting for much of her life. On election day, about 4 million Californians cast ballots for her, meaning that she spent about $36 per vote. Maybe if she'd simply paid Diaz Santillan the $5,500 she owed her in the first place — the price of a mere 152 more votes — she would have won.

Throughout the campaign, Whitman argued that her experience as a CEO made her ready to handle California's challenges; that her knowledge of how to run a business made her capable of running a state. If so, her legacy may be a lesson to chief executives more than to politicians: It's smart to spend a little in order to save a lot, and it's bad business to shortchange an employee.

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