From Sacramento — Turns out I was wrong about last week's gubernatorial debate. I gave the edge to Jerry Brown but wrote that Meg Whitman didn't make any mistakes.
I was only half right. Whitman really goofed, adhering to a campaign script that now has cast her in the role of hypocrite.
Words do matter.
Whitman made herself into a very large target at UC Davis when she declared: "We do have to hold employers accountable for hiring only documented workers, and we do have to enforce that law."
Despite the revelation the next day that she herself had employed an illegal immigrant maid for nine years — unbeknownst to her, she says — Whitman repeated the admonition in a second contentious encounter with Brown on Saturday at Cal State Fresno:
"If we don't hold employers accountable, we will never get our arms around this [illegal immigration] problem."
She couldn't have teed it up better for Brown.
"Ms. Whitman obviously didn't crack down on herself," the Democrat replied. "This is a question of talking out of both sides of her mouth."
The only place Whitman has been held accountable is, suddenly, in the political arena.
The Republican candidate's problem is not that she hired an undocumented housemaid. That's understandable in modern California. The Mexican immigrant's papers were phony, after all.
That would be a problem only within the Republican right, which Whitman pandered to in winning the GOP nomination. And that's her problem now as she runs among a broader electorate, because the early hard-line anti-illegal immigrant stance seems so contradictory.
It also amounts to impractical policy, as she herself has shown.
"Basically, it's disingenuous rhetorical fantasy about what the California governor can do," says Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, who's not involved in the gubernatorial race.
"What happens when Whitman's next door neighbor has a swat team of gardeners show up every week? Is she going to notice this and send in her inspection team? She is exposing the reality of California at the same time she's engaging in all this hollow rhetoric."
The housekeeper issue also really isn't about whether Whitman and her neurosurgeon husband, Griff Harsh, received a government letter in 2003 warning that the maid's Social Security number and name didn't match.
Whitman at first ungraciously suggested that the letter was intercepted and tossed by the maid, Nicandra Diaz Santillan. Then the maid's media-wise attorney, Gloria Allred, produced a copy of the letter with the husband's handwriting on it: "Nicky, please check this." The couple's response was that they had no recollection.
And that's believable. Very little problem there.
A larger issue — particularly for Latino voters — is how Diaz Santillan was treated in June 2009 after she informed Whitman and her husband that she was in the country illegally and asked for help. She was fired and thrown away "like a piece of garbage," the weeping maid told reporters.
Whitman said she was told by her lawyer that the housekeeper was beyond legal help because she had perjured herself. As for the garbage part, that's nonsense, the candidate said. So it's the word of the maid versus Meg.
What's indisputable is that Whitman knew at least 15 months ago that she had employed an illegal immigrant for nine years, yet publicly continued to bash the employment of illegal immigrants.
Her strategists explain that Whitman has only castigated those who knowingly hire the undocumented. But that's not the way the rhetoric has sounded.
During the primary, the campaign ran a TV ad featuring former Gov. Pete Wilson, the champion of Proposition 187, assuring Republicans that Whitman would be "tough as nails on illegal immigration."
Her campaign brochure promised to "institute a system where state and local law enforcement agencies conduct inspections of workplaces suspected of employing undocumented workers."
Whitman keeps talking about the need for "a temporary guest worker program"—"so people like Nicky," she now adds, "can work here legally."
But is nearly a decade, the length of her maid's tenure, Whitman's idea of temporary?
There also are a couple of subliminal subtleties at play.
The episode highlights billionaire Whitman's extreme wealth and is bound to leave some voters asking themselves, Can she really relate to us ordinary folks?
And in stumbling on the campaign trail, it raises a question about how competent this former EBay chief really is. The pitch has been: Sure, she has no governing experience, but she's very bright and a quick study. Governing isn't brain surgery and she'll easily pick up on the political nuances of Sacramento.
Why didn't Whitman acknowledge the hiring of an undocumented maid months ago, with her own timing and message? She didn't want to expose Diaz Santillan to possible deportation, her handlers answer.
But it's foolish in the extreme to think that word of an illegal immigrant maid wouldn't somehow leak out before a California election.
Whitman desperately wants to blame Atty. Gen. Brown for orchestrating a smear. Brown flatly denies it.
In this anti-politician climate, Brown could be smudged himself if he were caught with his hand in it, even though such covert tactics are a tradition of American democracy.
"Jerry, you should be ashamed [putting] her deportation at risk," Whitman told Brown in the Fresno debate.
Brown then got off the best line of either debate: "Don't run for governor if you can't stand up on your own two feet and say, 'Hey, I made a mistake....'
"You have blamed her, blamed me, blamed the left, blamed the unions. But you don't take accountability."
How much is all this hurting Whitman? Unknown. But even a little could be a lot in a tight race.