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U.C. Merced delegation swarms Washington

WASHINGTON -- University of California at Merced Chancellor Steve Kang needs friends in high places.

Already a familiar presence in Sacramento, Kang is making his Capitol Hill debut this week. He's marketing a new medical school, getting to know grant-givers and generally hustling on behalf of his budding university.

"Some people," Kang said Tuesday afternoon, "don't yet know we exist."

Kang's predecessor, U.C. Merced's founding chancellor, Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, used to visit Washington several times a year. Sometimes university officials carry specific requests, for money, legislation or permits. This week's trip has a broader agenda, epitomized by Kang walking around a room Tuesday and systematically shaking hands with all the young congressional staffers present.

"This is what the trip is about: relationship building," said Larry Salinas, the university's executive director of government relations. "We have to introduce him to a lot of folks he has not met on the federal level."

Kang's wife, Mia, nodded as Salinas spoke in the office of Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. On the second day of a four-day trip, they were systematically working their way through San Joaquin Valley congressional offices. For this inaugural lobbying trip, each U.C. Merced visitor plays a distinct role.

Several bring political backgrounds, including Salinas, federal relations director Cori Lucero and Vice Chancellor for University Relations John Garamendi Jr. Some are straight-up scholars, including Maria Pallavicini, dean of the U.C. Merced School of Natural Sciences. Some do what no one else can.

"I'm making sure that (my husband) is functioning OK," Mia Kang, the chancellor's wife and herself a former software engineer, said with a laugh. "High level, low level; I do whatever is necessary."

This week's U.C. Merced delegation trip represents one type of lobbying, a blend of social events, stop-by visits and briefings. It augments the University of California's permanent D.C. lobbying force, on which the university system reported spending $1.2 million in the last two years.

On Tuesday afternoon, for instance, Kang and Pallavicini briefed congressional staffers about plans for a new medical school. Although the crucial decisions will be made in California, federal agencies and lawmakers could potentially prove helpful.

"We hope you can come and visit our campus," Kang told the half a dozen staffers in attendance. "It's beautiful."

Already, six House members representing the San Joaquin Valley have written the University of California Board of Regents urging support for the new medical school. In May, the board is scheduled to vote on whether U.C. Merced can continue planning. Final approval may still be a year or more away, Salinas said.

The university probably will need about $200 million to support the medical school's first 10 years, Pallavicini estimated. For now, U.C. Merced officials are not seeking any funding from Congress, as they anticipate state funds, private donations and tuition will suffice.

This week, Kang is also meeting with Energy Department and National Science Foundation officials who hold other purse strings. Last year, for instance, the National Science Foundation awarded U.C. Merced researchers grants totaling $2.5 million, according to the NSF.

The University of California at Santa Cruz, where Kang formerly worked, received about $7.4 million in NSF grants last year.

All told, U.C. Merced reported receiving $12.2 million in various state and federal research grants last year.

Beyond money, university officials need some federal permits. In particular, Kang inherited from Tomlinson-Keasey an application first filed in 2002 with the Army Corps of Engineers to fill some 76 acres of vernal pools and other wetlands. On Tuesday, by chance, the Corps of Engineers scheduled an April 23 public hearing on the university's wetlands permit application; the hearing will be held on the campus.

"The campus is very exciting for the region," Kang said as he flicked a laser pointer over his PowerPoint demonstration.