Prop Zero
The Starting Point for Commentary and Coverage of California Politics

Housekeeper 1, Brain Surgeon 0

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Talk about class warfare.

The governor's race in California has little to do with the state's future, given the absence of real plans to address the state's problems. But in these last few weeks, it has turned into a fun story. And on Thursday, the campaign offered class warriors the delicious spectacle of a housekeeper -- and an undocumented immigrant at that -- winning a high-profile media exchange with a brain surgeon.

The housekeeper, of course, is Nicky Diaz Santillan, who worked for Meg Whitman for nine years and is now alleging she was treated poorly. The brain surgeon is Dr. Griffin Harsh, Whitman's husband.

Diaz Santillan had alleged that Harsh and Whitman had known of her status as an illegal immigrant for years -- because they received letters from the Social Security Administration informing them of a problem with her Social Security number. Harsh and Whitman denied ever receiving such letters. And the brain surgeon and GOP candidate didn't stop there--they went so far as to suggest that Diaz Santillan might have intercepted their mail. Whitman even offered to take a lie detector test -- a foolish thing to say since it's likely to keep this controversy alive for the rest of the campaign. (Reporters will keep asking about why she hasn't taken the lie detector test when, inevitably, she doesn't).

No sooner had Harsh and Whitman denied receiving the Social Security letters than Diaz Santillan and her celebirty attorney, Gloria Allred, produced such a letter. And then came the hammer: the letter had what appears to be Harsh's handwriting on it. Cornered, the brain surgeon backed down, allowing that he might have gotten a letter. Credibility-wise, the housekeeper bested the surgeon.

What does any of this mean? If you're concerned about the state budget and the dysfunctional governing structure of California, nothing. But as a political and public relations matter, this was a debacle for the Whitamn campaign. It turned this story about Whitman having employed an undocumented maid -- which is not hardly shocking or scandalous in a place like California -- into a media play that raises questions about her honesty and competence in handling today's media environment.  How did the Whitman camp put itself in the position to be so quickly and easily contradicted on a verifiable point?

Whitman, instead of fighitng over facts, would have been wise to do a blanket mea culpa when the housekeeper surfaced Tuesday and apologize for having employed an illegal worker and for any difficulties she may have caused the woman. Instead, she joined a fight that she can't easily win.

It turns out politics isn't brain surgery. It's harder.

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