Palin's buzz has turned into a roar

TURLOCK -- When they signed Sarah Palin, CSU Stanislaus Foundation officials expected to generate buzz.

What they got was a deafening roar.

Entities ranging from the "Today" show to The Huffington Post have featured items on a fund-raiser on the small campus in the heart of California's Central Valley. A nonscientific search found 256 media mentions of the event since it was announced last month.

The celebrity television show "Extra" highlighted the "diva demands" in Palin's speaking contract. "By the looks of the demands," "Extra" wrote on its Web site, "you would think the former governor was a Hollywood celebrity, not a politician!"

Students, faculty and others have protested the selection of the former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate for the university's 50th anniversary gala.

One professor suggested the university invite comedian Tina Fey, with her spot-on Palin impression, to speak at commencement.

Matt Swanson, president of the nonprofit foundation at California State University, Stanislaus, said he's finalizing a contract for a commencement speaker who's on the opposite end of the political spectrum from Palin. But it's not Fey.

"I don't think we could afford Tina Fey," he said.

Politicians, watchdog groups and media fought for the right to see the contract, which has not been disclosed.

The California attorney general's office launched an investigation.

And when students found a portion of that contract in the trash, blogs, newspapers and television channels jumped on Palin's apparent demand for everything from a Lear jet to bottled water and bendable straws.

A blog on Palin's home state Alaska Daily News called it her "Van Halen moment," referring to the rock band's storied demand for M&Ms, with the brown candies removed.

The Independent, a London newspaper, had this to say: "If you want to keep Sarah Palin in the style to which she's become accustomed, her private jet 'MUST BE a Lear 60 or larger,' she'll need a whole fleet of SUVs to ferry her around town, and at least three luxury hotel rooms will be required to accommodate all those suitcases full of designer clobber."

In the national eye

Palin, who resigned from office last year, hasn't been shunning the spotlight. She has been speaking at conservative tea party gatherings, railing against big government and President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.

Outcry followed the announcement she was coming to town, with students and faculty posting Web sites and holding meetings to plot protests and keep her off campus.

A Facebook group, "Sarah Palin, Terrible Choice for 50th Anniversary of CSU Stanislaus," has generated 3,124 members. Other groups have formed in favor of the Palin event; the largest had 107 members as of Friday afternoon.

State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, entered the fray, seeking -- and getting -- an investigation by Attorney General Jerry Brown. Yee has tried to pass a law to make foundation records public. The San Francisco Bay Guardian newspaper last week credited the Democratic senator with a "two-fer" for knocking Palin and promoting open records in one shot.

The watchdog group Californians Aware filed a lawsuit against the university and its foundation, claiming that since the foundation is staffed by state-paid university employees, the contract is a public record.

On Friday, Yee said, "Our public university executives need to stop acting like they are running private country clubs and personal slush funds."

Foundation and university officials said Yee, whose name has been floated as a potential candidate for mayor of San Francisco, was exploiting the situation for political gain.

"The CSU Stanislaus Foundation is not interested in political theater or in being used as a political pawn," university President Hamid Shirvani said last week.

Some defend the foundation's decision, pointing to the cost to bring first lady Michelle Obama to the University of California at Mer- ced for commencement last summer. The ceremony's budget went from $100,000 to more than $1 million after Obama agreed to speak.

Obama was not paid for her appearance, and the costs -- much of it for equipment rental and transportation costs -- were made public when the university closed its books for the year.

CSU, Stanislaus, officials defend their choice and their decision to keep the contract under wraps, though Shir- vani, who serves as foun- dation chairman, said the organization would not sign a similar contract in the future.

In a San Francisco Chronicle story this week, Shirvani called the incident a "lesson learned."

He also accused the students of getting the documents from an office recycling bin, rather than an outside Dumpster as they claimed.

In the meantime, tickets to the foundation's $500-per-plate fund-raiser have sold out. And if the worldwide attention has members rethinking their decision to sign Palin, they're not showing it.

"All systems are go," Swanson said last week. He said the foundation is focused on its goal -- raising money for the university. Palin's appearance will bring in more money than any single fund-raiser in the university's history, he said.

In the long run, all the attention is good for the university, he said Friday.

"I have received voice mails and letters from around the country," Swanson said. "People are excited about it."

He said even some Democrats have contacted the foun- dation, saying that although they don't agree with Palin, they want to hear what she has to say.

"Overall, it's great," Swanson said. "When you look on Google under CSU, we're coming up near the top now.

"It's absolutely put us on the map. We want to be someone who's not afraid to step out and do things that are interesting. This won't be the last event."

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at or 578-2343.

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