Confronted with a disclosure that for five years his family employed an undocumented alien as a nanny, Rep. Michael Huffington scrambled Thursday to salvage a once-soaring political campaign that had been based in good part on a call for stricter immigration controls.
The Republican from Santa Barbara, who has spent almost $20-million of his oil fortune in an effort to unseat Sen. Dianne Feinstein, faced the most daunting obstacle yet in his costly quest: a contradiction between talk and action on illegal immigration, the hottest political issue in California this fall.
"We have made a mistake, no question about it," Huffington conceded during a news conference Thursday afternoon in Santa Barbara with his wife, Arianna.
"But who among us hasn't?" he asked. "Including my opponent. We are all human." Huffington said Feinstein also had hired illegal immigrants in her home, but he offered no proof. Feinstein flatly denied it.
Huffington said that the nanny, identified only as Marcella, was hired by his wife in the late 1980s and that at the time she had not disclosed that she was undocumented. She stopped working for his family when he moved to Washington two years ago, but long before that, he conceded, the family had discovered that she was undocumented.
"I should have put my foot down, ignored the pleas of my wife and children," he said when asked why he did not dismiss the nanny upon learning that she had no work papers. His inaction, he went on, stemmed from the fact that the family, particularly the children, loved the nanny "like a member of the family."
Huffington, at times grimacing, said he took full responsibility for the legal lapse. He added that though the law was broken, the family did try to get a work permit for the woman and began paying her taxes.
A week ago, Huffington announced his support for the much-disputed citizen initiative on California's fall ballot that would impose new strictures on undocumented aliens. Feinstein announced her opposition a day later.
The initiative, which would deny most government services, including schooling and non-emergency health care, to undocumented aliens has strong support in the polls. But two new polls out on Thursday found that support has been slipping ever since debate over possible unconstitutionality of the measure was taken up by national political figures, among them President Clinton.
In his initial attempt Wednesday to fend off the disclosure about the maid's hiring, Huffington told reporters he did not know of any hiring problem within his family.
Later, he acknowledged that in fact an undocumented maid had been hired.