Globetrotting Governors Push Exports, Commerce

By: - November 15, 1999 12:00 am

When Illinois Governor George Ryan embarked on a historic five-day visit to Cuba in October, fun and sun on the Caribbean island were the last things on his mind. His avowed mission was to push for an end to the United States’ 40-year-old economic embargo and provide struggling Midwestern farmers with another export market.

“Until we came here and emphasized and pointed out what [the embargo] was all about, I think people probably looked at the newspaper and said Who cares?’ Now that they have a better understanding of it, I think they have some different thought on this,” Ryan said at a press conference in Havana.

While the nation’s governors have always worked to promote their states’ economic interests abroad, the growing importance of global markets has led governors to embark on ever-bolder and more far-flung trade missions. And though some of the trips have been resounding successes, the efforts are not without controversy.

Ryan, castigated by the Cuban-American community for the trip, responded that “Miami is not my concern. I don’t represent Miami, I represent Illinois.”

California Gov. Gray Davis also encountered criticism when he undertook a two-week trade mission to Europe, Greece and the Middle East.

Among those with him on the trip was the head of a nursing home company with a history of state citations. The trip came less than a week after Davis vetoed legislation that would have cracked down on nursing homes by forcing them to hire more staff and doubling fines for offenses.

Davis also drew barbs for leaving “unfinished business” at home. Critics pointed out that he has filled only half of the 42 state department directorships and half of the state’s 1,000 appointive jobs.

It was also pointed out that of California’s nine foreign trade offices, only four have directors.

While the trip yielded only a single $7 million contract, it solidified Davis’ political clout in his 10th month in office. Davis traveled to five countries, met with four heads of state and become the first California governor to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

At each stop, Davis reiterated his “foreign policy” with a simple line: “Diplomacy used to be about war and peace. Now it’s about trade and commerce.”

Many governors believe it’s worthwhile to go aboard on goodwill missions. Florida’s Jeb Bush is currently visiting the Middle East. In recent months, the governors of Hawaii, Alabama and Minnesota all made trips to Japan; the governors of Arizona and Idaho went to Mexico; the governor of Idaho is now on a two-week trade mission in Europe; the governors of Nebraska and Wisconsin led trade missions to China; and the governor of West Virginia traveled to Germany and Switzerland to establish a European trade office.

Some of these trips have produced tangible results. Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura is moving ahead on the fourth part of his “Big Plan”– “Minnesota: World Competitor.” On the second day of a 10-day trip to Japan that ended last week, Ventura announced a major pork export agreement that would give a 25 percent boost in business to a group of 80 Minnesota family-farm pork producers.

Ventura has also accepted an invitation from Mexican officials to pursue a trade mission to that country as early as January.

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