Whitman to Latinos: Hola

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Meg Whitman's campaign for California governor is ramping up its efforts to woo Latino voters. Whitman released a new Spanish-language ad yesterday focused on job creation. She's also run a string of recent ads with Spanish subtitles declaring her opposition to the Arizona immigration law and featuring Latino students in caps and gowns, plus ads on Spanish-language TV stations Univision and Telemundo, and has written op-eds for and done interviews with Spanish-language newspapers. This week, she opened an office in East LA, a predominantly Hispanic area, and is handing out Spanish-language versions of her policy book.

The point of all this messaging? To undo her recent proselytizing on the need to crack down on immigration. In Whitman's Republican primary, her opponent Steve Poizner painted her as soft on immigration. Targeting the more conservative primary electorate, Whitman fought back with ads featuring border fence imagery and endorsements from former California Governor Pete Wilson, famous for his hard-line approach to immigration.

Wilson built his 1994 re-election campaign on the back of Proposition 187, which aimed to block illegal immigrants' access to social services like health care and public education. He's blamed for sending California's Latino voters scurrying from the Republican Party, thereby locking in the state's enduring Democratic majority. In addition to soberly endorsing her immigration stance in primary ads, he's also acting as her campaign chairman. After winning the primary, though, Whitman broadcast her opposition to Prop. 187 and claimed that she and Wilson differ on this topic.

A coalition of California unions have released a Spanish-language ad highlighting Whitman's ties to Wilson and accusing the candidate of having "dos caras" -- two faces -- when it comes to immigration.

"People are becoming aware of Pete Wilson's involvement in her campaign," says California Sen. Gilbert Cedillo, chair of the state's Latino Legislative Caucus, which has endorsed Brown. "There are some ads that are starting to run. Unfortunately, [Wilson] is not well received in the Latino community, especially by those who were politically active during that time period."

Cedillo thinks the "dos caras" ad is "very well-done," but "the saturation of it is still modest compared to [Whitman's] ... buy only on Univision," the country's biggest Spanish-language television network. Cedillo says that Whitman has invested more dollars in courting California's Hispanic community than the state's other politicians combined. "Ask Univision -- she's invested more than anyone else in the state."

Brown's problem, Cedillo thinks, is the booming population of young Hispanics who, unlike their parents, aren't familiar with his decades-long history in the state government. Cedillo said:

Governor Brown needs to invest in the Hispanic community today, urgently, because while he has a long and rich history with the Mexican American community of California, this is a community that's young and new. This is a community that since 1985 have become citizens, and their children have become citizens. And so there's a whole population, a significant part of the Mexican American community, that does not know Jerry Brown.

Almost a third of the Mexican American electorate is between the ages of 18 and 30. They don't have a clue between Jerry Brown and Jerry Lewis. That population needs to be introduced to the governor. Once those two records stand side by side, there would be no comparison.

Brown has not heavily targeted Hispanic voters. Whether this is due to a false sense of security in their support or to a lack of resources, he has already lost significant ground to Whitman. In the 2006 governor's election, 39 percent of Latino voters opted to re-elect Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, while 56 percent voted for Democratic challenger Phil Angelides. But in the latest Field poll for the upcoming race, Brown garnered only 50 percent to Whitman's 39. Overall, he led Whitman by just one point.

With three months left until the election and Whitman pouring money into reaching Latino voters, she could very well narrow the 11-point gap. But if Brown gathered his resources and supplemented the independent attacks on Whitman's immigration double-speak with targeted, Spanish-language reminders of her border-fence filled primary ads, he could remind his dwindling Latino base why they've sided with Democrats for the past 16 years.

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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