top of page

Tea party icon

Sarah Palin brews up a following in the heart of Democratic darkness

By Karl Kahler


When Sarah Palin, possibly America's most polarizing political figure, stepped into the lion's den of heavily Democratic San Jose on Thursday, was a raucous crowd of tea party fans waiting to welcome her?


You betcha.


Palin, the conservative icon and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, first drew cheers by saluting the San Francisco Giants, then said she was delighted to be in a "state that puts a mama grizzly on its flag."


Appearing at the downtown Center for the Performing Arts— her first visit to San Jose and first public event in the Bay Area — Palin rallied the faithful to dump the Democrats and elect candidates who embrace the conservative values of lower taxes, less spending and smaller government.


"Are you ready to take it back," she asked, "and put government back on the side of the little guy and have government work for you instead of you having to work for government?"


Speaking in a rapid-fire, sometimes chirpy voice, Palin parodied "Saturday Night Live" by saying, "Nov. 2 is right around the corner. I can see it from my house!"


The public forum was sponsored by the conservative Liberty & Freedom Foundation, whose executive director, Victor Cocchia, asked: "What better place to come to educate people as to the conservative message than the Bay Area, where conservatives are marginalized and not heard very often?"


No claws barred

Palin, who last year resigned as Alaska governor with 18 months left in her first term, attacked "Obamacare," President Barack Obama's landmark health care reform package, as "the mother of all unfunded mandates." And she assailed the 2009 stimulus bill and all the "shovel-ready projects" it was supposed to fund.


"Now we know what they were shoveling, and it wasn't asphalt," she said.


One man in the crowd shouted, "Throw the bums out!"  Palin replied, "Amen, brother. You betcha."


In a speech tailored to California interests, Palin also lambasted the cutoff of water affecting millions of state residents because of "a two-inch fish," the threatened delta smelt.


"Where I come from," she said, "we call that bait."


Palin is widely thought to be considering a run for president in 2012, and one person attending the event — Darali Phillips, 67, of Los Gatos — said Sarah has her vote. "We just don't like what's going on in Washington," Phillips said, "and we want to change the tide" of "big government taking more and more control of everything."


'Not friendly territory'

Despite such sentiments, nearly 6 in 10 Californians have an unfavorable opinion of Palin, according to a recent Field Poll. Pollsters found that 53 percent of registered voters would be less likely to vote for a candidate because of Palin's endorsement, while only 21 percent said they would be more likely.


Negative views of Palin are probably even stronger in San Jose, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1.


"There is a Republican base here, but it's fairly small," said San Jose State political science professor Larry Gerston. "There are a number of conservative Democrats, however, who might be persuaded to some degree, or at least interested in what someone like Palin would have to say.


"But in general," he added, "this is not friendly territory for Sarah Palin."


Gerston said this is a good time for Palin, a "great communicator" skilled at tapping into public anger, to be speaking anywhere, given the national mood.


Plenty of sitting room

About 1,400 people (not enough to fill the 2,665-seat auditorium) paid from $25 to $199 for the two-hour forum, during which Cocchia and conservative KSFO commentator Brian Sussman also spoke. Sussman led the crowd in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and a girls' quintet called Celestial City sang "God Bless America" and the national anthem.


At a VIP reception at the Marriott Hotel afterward, fans got a chance to meet Palin and have their picture taken with her for $500. The reception was followed by a $350 dinner noteworthy for herb-roasted chicken breast and crème brûlée cheesecake.


Terry Christensen, also a political-science professor at San Jose State, said he couldn't recall such a "polarizing" figure as Palin appearing here since President Richard Nixon came to the Civic Auditorium in 1970 and was met by stone-throwing protesters. But Christensen said there are enough Republicans here to turn out in decent numbers for a "political megastar" like Palin.


"I can think of only a handful of current politicians who have her celebrity status and star quality — just Palin, Obama and the Clintons," he said.


On Saturday, Palin will attend a Republican National Committee fundraiser and rally in Anaheim with Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. Neither GOP gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman nor Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina will be attending, citing previously scheduled events.


Palin's speaking fees are usually kept under tight wraps, although after a public outcry about how much she was paid to speak at Cal State Stanislaus in June, officials finally revealed that it was $75,000.


Cocchia declined to quantify Palin’s paycheck for San Jose, claiming he has a T-shirt that says, "No, I Won't Tell You How Much I Paid." 

I write an online column called “The Wire,” a daily summary of the world’s top stories, and I've published travel articles, history pieces and other news features in the San Jose Mercury News. Occasionally I get the chance to write Page 1 news stories, like this one on Sarah Palin’s first visit to San Jose. And my account of how I got mugged in Costa Rica was somewhat remarked-upon online, mostly by smart-asses who thought I totally deserved it. 

I went to

Costa Rica

and all I got

was mugged

By Karl Kahler


PLAYA DEL COCO, Costa Rica — I felt safe enough strolling the beach alone past midnight in this resort town — I was right in front of my hotel, there was a police station two blocks to the right and there were several people hanging out on the beach.

Of course, those were the people who were about to mug me.

I turned to the left, where a little, gray footbridge crossed a marshy area between two roads. That was my first mistake: Don't go where the police can't drive.

Four shirtless, barefoot men came up behind me silent as wraiths, grabbed my body and slammed me face down onto the hard, splintery boards of the bridge.

I'm a fit 45-year-old, a former boxer and wrestler, and (when four men are not on top of me) a decent runner. I've traveled alone in places a lot more dangerous than Costa Rica, including post-genocide Rwanda and rebel-held Congo. I've sometimes thought, "I pity the fool who tries to mug me." But on this one night, when I let my guard down, I was the fool.

I tried to fight, but I couldn't — I was pinned, my arms and legs crushed under the weight of four tough guys. All I could do was scream.


Nobody heard me, though my hotel was only 50 paces away, with a guard in the front office and the five guys traveling with me fast asleep. (My excuse? Insomnia.)

My clearest memory of the attack was looking up and seeing a rangy brown man raising his heel and then stomping it into my nose. As I learned in my boxing days, a blow to the face doesn't hurt all that much in the heat of battle, but it does rattle your brain a bit.

"HELLLLLP!" The stomping didn't silence me, but now I felt a hand clamp over my mouth, a disturbingly intimate touch. And as it also covered most of my nose, I felt the panic of asphyxiation. I went silent, thrashing as I struggled to breathe.

I heard a muted voice: "Es todo." That's all.

And then a strange thing happened: They let me go and quietly slipped away. This was oddly surprising, as if I expected them to go on stomping and smothering me all night.

I rolled under the rails of the bridge and staggered back to the hotel. I noticed that the left pocket of my REI shorts had been ripped open for half a pack of cigarettes and an orange Bic lighter, while the zippered right pocket had been emptied of two Costa Rican bills worth $12.

Es todo. I had stashed my wallet and passport in my hotel room.

"You were lucky. They could have killed you for lack of money," said Peter Tarlow, a Texas A&M professor who has a doctorate in tourism security and lectures globally on the subject.

"People should never go out in the street without 25 bucks in their pocket. It could save your life," he said, citing cases in which robberies turned into homicides because the victims weren't carrying enough money to satisfy their attackers.

Another expert on travel safety, Ira Somerson, said: "You had a good instinct to leave your wallet and passport safely in your room. Why? Because you unconsciously understood the risk you were taking by going out for a walk alone!"

Somerson, who is president of Loss Management Consultants of Pennsylvania and has 30 years' experience as an expert witness and professional consultant on security issues, said: "First advice: Trust your instincts — it should be the first thing you listen to besides the advice you may get before traveling. You may choose to ignore the advice of others, but never ignore your instincts."

Crime against tourists is "very common," Tarlow said, even in countries you would think of as safe. Unfortunately, he says, those who contact him for travel safety information are often people who have already been victimized — people like me. The time to think about the issue is before it's too late.

Tarlow says the most common victims of tourism crime, counterintuitively, are single men ages 18 to 30. Why?

"Because they don't take precautions, they walk alone in dark places, they don't get medical care."

Guilty on all three counts.

My hotel guard, alarmed to see a crazed, bloody tourist staggering into his lobby, refused at first to call the police, telling me I could walk two blocks to the police station myself.

My brother and our sons, 18 and 21, doubly alarmed to see me with cuts all over my face and liberal splashes of blood on my shirt, watched as I showed the guard how they stomped my face — and he wanted me to go back out there so they could do it again?!

A young cop finally showed up on a motorbike, listened to my story, jotted a few notes and said it wasn't a good idea to walk in dangerous places at night. Then he rode back to his police station. Big help he was.

Tarlow says most victimized tourists never contact the police — and in fact, depending on where you are, it may be unwise to do so. In some places, the underpaid cops are as bad as the robbers. If you are robbed in London, by all means call the police. But if you're in Angola, think twice.

My second mistake was not immediately cleaning all my wounds and scouring them for splinters, gray paint, mud or anything else that didn't belong inside my body.

I had close to 30 cuts on my face, hands, elbows and knees. Nothing was broken, though my nose was red and swollen and bled for two hours. The inside of my lips were purple, and there was a big, weird spot of blood in my left eye.

The next day we drove to Monteverde, the cloud forest that is Costa Rica's biggest tourist attraction. I felt sore in lots of places, but I figured it would pass.

The day after that, I woke up feverish and in pain. Three wounds were infected. I could barely walk because of shooting pains in the knee, I couldn't use my right hand and I was practically delirious with fever.

So did I go to a doctor? No, and that was my third mistake.

Why not? I was hurting so bad, and I was so feverish, that I would have had a hard time getting out of bed if someone told me the hotel was on fire. Also, I had no idea how to find medical care, I feared it would cost me hundreds of dollars and I doubted it would be much help. I decided to wait until my return home.

Bad call. Getting medical care is like trying to find a bathroom when you need one — waiting doesn't help. Tarlow advises contacting the local U.S. consulate beforehand for the names of trustworthy doctors.

I stayed in bed all day, eating nothing but aspirin and over-the-counter antibiotics that my son brought me. I finally dressed my wounds properly with antibiotic ointment.

We spent the next two days getting home, arriving in the Bay Area late on a Friday. Not until Monday, six days after the attack, did I see my doctor, who gave me a tetanus shot and daily doses of antibiotic injections and oral antiobiotics for 10 days.

My doctor said the same thing Tarlow said: "You were lucky."

With luck like this, who needs misfortune?

While I nurse my wounds (and my wounded pride), I leave you with some sage advice from Somerson:

"Be prepared, learn about the environment you are visiting, understand that any traveler will be obvious in a different culture and therefore vulnerable. Never be alone at night in a turf you do not know, but most importantly listen to your instincts and avoid the potential dangers you perceive."

bottom of page