Whitman struggling to close the deal with Latinos

Meg Whitman, Republican nominee for governor, meets Latino employees of Ramcast Ornamental in Los Angeles, California on October 21, 2010.
Meg Whitman, Republican nominee for governor, meets Latino employees of Ramcast Ornamental in Los Angeles, California on October 21, 2010.
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

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Latino voters make up about a fifth of the electorate in California. They’re overwhelmingly Democratic. Meg Whitman had hoped to win over enough to beat Jerry Brown in the race for governor.

This year more than most, voters are open to trying different approaches to government. Just look at the Tea Party, and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware.

Pat Acosta says Latinos should be able to explore the full political spectrum, too.

“As Latinos, we really don’t have the luxury to really just be saying for example, I’m a Democrat, I’ve always been a Democrat," she says. "I think this election and the economy have helped me reflect a lot more and say I have to look at the candidate a lot more closely.”

Acosta, 44, sits with a randomly selected group in the upstairs break room of the Shoe Port, the store she and her husband own in South Gate. Shoe boxes rise to the ceiling. Coffee and Mexican sweet bread sit on the table.

Like a lot of voters, this group is most concerned about jobs and the economy.

“How are we going to bring back these corporations to America, because that is the bottom line here," Monica Meza said. Tears well up in the eyes of this 32-year-old mortgage banker as she describes what happened to her father.

"My dad, I take a lot of pride in him because he worked here for over 30 years. Hardworking man and his company, they left, they closed down."

She says he hasn’t worked in three years.

The unemployment rate in Los Angeles County tops 12-and-a-half percent. It’s believed to be higher among Latinos, who have the highest poverty rates in the region.

Meza, a Democrat, likes the idea of bringing in a successful business executive like Meg Whitman to be governor. But one factor makes her hesitate. It’s Whitman’s refusal to support a path for legalization for undocumented immigrants.

Angel Colon, who grew up in Brooklyn and owns this shoe store with his wife, chimes in. He says many customers are undocumented immigrants. Fighting back emotion, he says they are "amazing people. They’re very hard workers.”

Immigration – it’s an issue that comes up again and again.

To Roberto Machuca, Whitman’s hiring, then firing an undocumented immigrant housekeeper felt personal. His mother came to the United States from El Salvador, overstayed her visa and lived illegally in this country for several years.

“She cleaned houses for all her life and when she would take me with her and make me vacuum carpet at certain angles, that all stayed with me."

Chuckling, he said it inspired him to study so he wouldn't have to do the same. The 31-year-old transportation planner has decided he’s voting for Jerry Brown – who supports a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants.

Angel Colon, 45, is the only registered Republican in the group and remains undecided. He is willing to set aside Whitman’s position on undocumented immigrants if she can create jobs – because, he says, that helps everybody.

“To the illegal immigrant today, the most important thing is to be able to work.”

The Whitman versus Brown debate here is not unlike conversations all over the state. Monica Meza, who was born the year Jerry Brown left the governor’s office the first time and hasn't decided how she'll vote a week from Tuesday, wonders about the prospect of his encore.

“I don’t really like the fact of going back to somebody who already governed. And I’m not too sure of his track record. It wasn’t the greatest.”

Jeanette Pena, 29, considers Meg Whitman too green to govern.

“She has been a very successful woman in her own right, but one thing is business and the other thing is government," she says. "One thing is having a plan, and another thing is bringing everybody to the table and making it happen.”

Jerry Brown, she says, may be better at that.

Pena, a public health educator in South L.A., worries about Whitman’s plan to cut social services. "Everybody wants a balanced budget, but when you start talking about cuts – I mean that is a big fear to me, because our community has been impacted so greatly within the past couple of years.”

This conversation carries an undercurrent of fear – about the future of California, about the future of people they’ve known who used to feel lucky about living here.

“They had a good job, they had good health care. And now, people are on their jobs for 10 years still making peanuts. Ten dollars an hour," Meza says.

So where does that leave her support?

“I see very good positive things with Whitman, but my biggest, biggest problem with her is immigration.”

That issue appears to be one of Whitman’s biggest obstacles to winning over the Latinos in – and beyond – this room.