Feminist avenger Gloria Allred broke new ground today in her crusade to keep 1970s feminism alive. Allred is the defender of the sexually harassed and abused, the better if the abuser happens to be famous. Her clients include at least two mistresses of Tiger Woods, and the girlfriends or wives of Charlie Sheen, Shaquille O’Neal, and Dodi Fayed. At a press conference today she unveiled her latest victim, who fit the usual Allred profile: a maid she described as " exploited, disrespected, and humiliated ." Only this time the alleged exploiter was another woman, Meg Whitman, who is running as the Republican candidate for governor of California against Democrat Jerry Brown.
As expected, Allred described the allegations this morning as so "explosive" that they would sink the Whitman campaign. I allowed myself to imagine allegations that Meg Whitman had shoved her maid, as she once did to an eBay employee , or better yet, that the maid was pregnant with the children of one of Whitman’s incorrigible jerk-frat sons . But as always, Allred turns out to be about 80 percent hyperbole.
The concrete allegation is that Whitman knew that her maid, Nicky Diaz Santillan, was illegal, and received Social Security documents confirming that. Many political appointees-male and female-have been sunk over failure to pay taxes for or acknowledge that they had hired illegal help. The Whitman campaign has already released documents showing that Santillan lied about her status on her job application. And even if some Social Security documents were sent to the Whitman household, it would be hard to prove that Whitman received and processed them.
A weak legal case, except that the emotional undercurrents are catnip to Allred. Santillan described all kinds of interactions with her rich boss that would get Allred’s blood boiling. Ms. Whitman hired her to clean 16 hours a week but then asked her to do all kinds of errands that wound up taking more than 16 hours, but would not pay her for them. Ms. Whitman failed to reimburse her for car mileage, or give her a proper leave when she got pregnant.
Then there was this emotional showdown, told by Santillan herself in a shaky, terrified voice, after a long hug and whispers of encouragement from Allred: In June of 2009 Santillan came to Whitman and asked her for help with her immigration status. "Ms. Whitman just laughed and turned her face to the side." Whitman’s husband then entered the room and became livid. "I told you! I told you she was going to bring us problems," Santillan recalled him saying. After promising to call her lawyer, Whitman than left a voice mail for Santillan saying, from now on you don’t know me and I don’t know you-you never have seen me and I never have seen you-do you understand me?"
Is some version of this story believable? Sure. Like millions of Californians-and Americans-Whitman and Santillan chose to preserve a mutual ignorance about her immigration status for nine years. By the time Santillan became desperate and chose to air it, Whitman was running for governor. Whitman does not seem the rich type inclined to go out of her way to be kind to her help. Whitman called her lawyer, who read her the riot act about what hiring illegal help can do to political candidates. Whitman panicked and turned mafia on her former employee, whom she expected to quietly disappear.
But does it sink her campaign? We already know that empathy is not Whitman’s strong suit. That said, her position on immigration is more decent than many in her party. She opposes the Arizona crackdown and a ballot measure to deny illegal immigrants state services. She does want more border enforcement and crackdowns on companies that hire illegals, but her position is not all that far from Jerry Brown’s. Last night, the two of them had an excellent debate in which it was clear that Whitman sees life the way a former CEO who has self-funded her campaign would: She believes in corporate tax cuts and is suspicious of social welfare and unions.
"I’m doing this because I know there are a lot of Megs out there who are mistreating the Nickys who work so hard for them," Santillan said. My advice to Californians: Forget the specific allegations. But imagine this sentence of Nicky’s as part of a campaign commercial, outlining their two philosophies. If you are moved, then by all means, vote for Jerry Brown.
Photograph of Meg Whitman's former maid by Kevork Djansezian for Getty Images.