FRESNO, California (Reuters) - California’s first Spanish-language debate in the race for governor turned into an angry exchange on Saturday when Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown traded charges of lies and deception over the case of an illegal immigrant who used to work for Whitman.
Both candidates spoke in English and their answers were simultaneously translated into Spanish for the audience in Fresno in the agricultural Central Valley, where unemployment is even higher than the state average of more than 12 percent.
Polls consistently show jobs and state finances to be the top issue for voters, but Whitman’s former Latina housekeeper has become front page material in the last week.
Latinos make up roughly a third of California’s population and a fifth of the electorate, and so could decide the race.
Whitman, 54, a billionaire and former chief executive of online auctioneer eBay Inc, said she fired housekeeper Nicky Diaz when Diaz said she was in the country illegally.
Diaz and her lawyer have said that Whitman and her husband knew the true state of affairs for years before the confession. Whitman denied that and the issue flared up during the debate when she called the affair dirty politics by Brown.
“You should be ashamed for sacrificing Nicky Diaz on the altar of your political ambitions,” burst out Whitman, who usually is calm and reserved.
“You want to evade responsibility,” shot back Brown, 72, the state attorney general and two-term former governor. He denied any involvement in the matter. “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,'” he said.
“I did hold myself accountable. It’s just a lie to say I didn‘t,” Whitman later returned, turning to look at Brown.
Whitman has argued that one way to address illegal immigration is to hold employers accountable for hiring workers who are not in the country legally. Whitman says that Diaz originally showed her paperwork that later turned out to be false.
The former CEO tried to keep returning the debate to the economy, arguing that her business background would let her end political gridlock, close a $20 billion budget deficit, and turn around failing schools.
California Democrats outnumber Republicans, and Whitman is seen needing at least a significant minority of some traditional Democratic groups to win the November 2 election.
“I cannot win the governor’s race without the Latino vote,” she said at the beginning of the debate.
Non-Latinos were evenly split between the candidates in a recent poll. But with Latino support, Brown carried the state by 5 percentage points, said pollster Gary Segura of Latino Decisions, who conducted a survey of Latinos as part of the larger poll by the Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California.
“What I can really deliver on for Latinos -- I can deliver on jobs and education,” Whitman said, returning to her campaign refrain, which she says reaches across ethnic groups.
Whitman’s free-market message bristled with figures about the state’s poor condition, while Brown promised strong government action and leadership in areas such as championing alternative energy, and took a personal tone.
“I will do the best I can to find jobs, but also to be fair. I will treat everybody, whether they are documented or not, as God’s child,” he said.
Editing by Eric Walsh