Meg Whitman

By Julia Prodis Sulek
Posted: 03/18/2010 06:18:58 PM PDT
Updated: 03/18/2010 10:06:58 PM PDT

Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman reached out to Latino business leaders at a San Jose luncheon Thursday, promising to create jobs, improve education and cut spending.

She didn’t mention a touchier topic: immigration. But after her question-and-answer session with the Greater San Jose Hispanic Chamber of Commerce at a Santana Row restaurant, Whitman told the Mercury News she is “100 percent against amnesty,” wants to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants and will eliminate “sanctuary cities” such as San Francisco that don’t enforce federal immigration laws.

Still, Whitman said, she hopes her plans to improve education and the economy will appeal to a Latino population that is struggling with low graduation rates and higher joblessness and juvenile incarceration numbers.

With Latinos making up 1 in 5 California voters, the former eBay chief and Atherton resident considers the Latino vote “extraordinarily important.”

“We cannot have an economic recovery in California without the Latino community involved,” Whitman said.

It appears she made headway among those who listened to her Thursday.

“I’ve never, ever voted Republican, but I might,” Marisa Escalera, a 30-year-old account executive at Spanish language Univision radio, said after Whitman’s speech. “I was wowed away.”

Katherinne Garzon, a Campbell real estate agent, was so moved by Whitman’s talk that she signed up afterward to help build the “MEGaMujeres” division of the Whitman campaign’s “MEGaWomen” coalition. And Garzon is a registered Democrat.

She said she appreciates Whitman’s stand on education, which also affects real estate values, and she has friends who worked under Whitman at eBay and who speak highly of her.

“She’s a strong leader, and I can’t help but admire that,” said Garzon, 39.

Whitman, who has already spent millions of her own to launch her campaign, has a wide lead over state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner for the Republican nomination in June. Poizner has worked to position himself as tougher on illegal immigration than Whitman, though on Thursday, Hispanic Chamber CEO Carlos Figueroa said his group was more interested in the state’s economy.

“Immigration is very dear to us, but it’s not a focus,” Figueroa said.

Whitman, a New York native, arrived at the luncheon Thursday with her husband, Stanford neurosurgeon Griff Harsh IV, who listened to her speech, then joined her with friends afterward at an outdoor table.

In her speech to the business group, she touted her success at San Jose-based eBay, which she joined as a startup, and said she understands the dynamics of the small businesses that have sprung up because of the online auction house.

If she wins in November, she said, she will work to streamline regulations, pointing by way of example to the 21/2 year bureaucratic process it took to break ground on a new building for eBay subsidiary PayPal.

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