FRESNO — The California governor's race turned bitterly personal at a debate held Saturday for Spanish-speaking audiences, as Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and Democratic rival Jerry Brown slashed at each other over Whitman's hiring of an illegal immigrant housekeeper.
Questions about Nicky Diaz Santillan, who revealed Wednesday that she had worked for the Republican for nine years despite being undocumented, produced the sharpest exchange of the 60-minute debate held at Fresno State.
In the most explosive moment, Whitman faced Brown on stage and said, "Jerry, you know you should be ashamed. You and your surrogates put her deportation at risk. You put her out there. You should be ashamed for sacrificing Nicky Diaz at the altar of your political ambitions."
Whitman's campaign has not produced evidence that Brown collaborated with Diaz Santillan's attorney, Gloria Allred, on the case.
Brown hit back by accusing Whitman of not taking responsibility for hiring Diaz Santillan in the first place.
"Don't run for governor if you can't stand up on your own two feet and say, 'Hey I made a mistake. I'm sorry. Let's go on from here,' " Brown said. "You blamed her, blamed me, blamed the left, blamed the unions, but you don't take accountability."
The Democrat went right back to dinging Whitman about the housekeeper after technical problems halted the debate for about half an hour.
Brown brought up Whitman's plan for holding employers responsible for hiring illegal immigrants and said, "Ms. Whitman obviously didn't crack down on herself."
Diaz Santillan stunned the state political world this week when she announced in Allred's office that she was filing a claim seeking unpaid wages and mileage reimbursements from Whitman. She also released a 2003 Social Security letter that was sent to Whitman and her husband saying Diaz Santillan's data didn't match federal records.
Whitman has insisted that she didn't know Diaz Santillan was in the country illegally and let her go in June 2009, when the Mexican national requested help becoming a legal resident.
The still-fresh controversy carried extra dangers for Whitman on Saturday because millions of Latinos across the state were watching the debate on Spanish-language TV network Univision, with the candidates' responses dubbed into Spanish.
California's political math demands Whitman capture at least 30 percent of Latino support, a fact she acknowledged Saturday by saying, "I cannot win this election without the Latino vote."
Whitman has run months of Spanish-language advertising, and public opinion polls show she has garnered more Latino support than Republicans normally manage. In fact, she was the first to accept Saturday's debate invitation, with Brown confirming his appearance only weeks later.
Many of the questions Saturday from moderator Maria Elena Salinas focused on immigration and social services for Latino residents, as well as issues affecting the Central Valley, such as water and foreclosures.
Brown cited several times his accomplishments as governor, from 1975 to 1983, including signing a farm labor bill giving agricultural workers collective bargaining rights.
The two candidates laid out several policy differences.
Brown defended federal health care changes now taking effect, while Whitman said they should be repealed.
Brown again criticized Whitman's proposal to eliminate the capital gains tax as a blow to the state budget, particularly education.
Whitman said eliminating what she called "a tax on innovation" would improve the business climate in California, generating tax revenue for the state.
Brown said he supports federal immigration changes that would let illegal immigrants stay in the country. Whitman said she does not support a path to legalization.
At one point, a Fresno State student who said she was an illegal immigrant asked the candidates on camera whether they supported federal legislation letting some undocumented college students and members of the military win legal residency.
Brown said he supported the federal legislation as well as a state bill that would offer financial aid to undocumented college students. He also criticized Whitman's proposal to bar illegal immigrants from attending public colleges and universities.
"She wants to kick you out of this school because you are not documented, and that is wrong morally and humanly," Brown said.
Whitman said she didn't support the state bill because "I don't think it's fair to bar and eliminate the ability of California citizens to attend higher universities and favor undocumenteds."
She also said she opposed the federal immigration bill, which she said was "a partial solve to a very complicated situation."
Brown and Whitman both supported creating more charter schools and starting work earlier on the state budget.
At one point, Whitman appropriated Brown's "accountability" rhetoric by accusing him of ducking blame for Oakland's low-performing schools while he was mayor there, from 1998 to 2006.
"Do you know what's really wrong about politics today?" Whitman asked. "It's politicians don't take accountability. He promised families he would fix the education system and he didn't."
Brown called such criticism "a very deceptive statement about what I did about the schools" and argued that he had little control over Oakland's school board.
Moderator Salinas provided some relief from the nastiness at the end of the debate when she made an unusual request for the candidates to name three positive traits about their opponents.
Caught off guard by the question, Brown offered that Whitman was smart and "very tough" and had "a pretty interesting set of job experiences."
"Is that it? Can I tell you about all my qualities?" Brown asked, sparking laughter from the audience. He then let Whitman take her turn with the question.
Whitman answered that Brown "cares a great deal about California, he's had a long career in public service, and I really love his choice of wife. I'm a big fan of Anne Gust."
Whitman, however, didn't stop there.
"So what do I bring to this table?" she asked, launching into a lengthy answer that touched on subjects ranging from her business experience to her desire to put people back to work.
She didn't, however, mention the online auction firm eBay, where she served as CEO for a decade and became a billionaire Silicon Valley superstar.