Aides to McDonnell and O’Malley have maintained that the close timing of the trips has been coincidental. But there’s little doubt that as the U.S. economic malaise continues, a growing number of governors have embraced the role of economic ambassador — even as the benefits of such trips remain a matter of debate.
For McDonnell and O’Malley, who have both taken steps suggesting national political ambitions, the trips have also produced fodder for critics who say the excursions are designed at least in part to pad the two governors’ political résumés.
“Certainly, the governors who take trips abroad, and who comment on foreign affairs, these governors seem to have more ambition to climb to higher office,” said Lucas McMillan, a political science professor at Lander University in South Carolina and author of a forthcoming book that analyzes the economic effects of 12 years of international trade missions by governors.
“In general, these trips are good. The face-to-face and presence of a governor is sometimes actually needed to open up and bring out some opportunity,” McMillan said. “But there is a lagged effect, often in years, in both in attracting foreign investment and in promoting U.S. products abroad. The benefit is not immediate.”
McDonnell left for India early this month, saying he wanted to “tell Virginia’s story” as the most business-friendly state in the union and hinted this week as his trip concluded that the visit would soon produce an announcement regarding a new auto manufacturing facility, as well as other economic development.
McDonnell spent much of his time in India promoting the state’s wine, film and tourism industries. He hosted wine tastings with some of India’s top wine critics, hoteliers and others who might be interested in importing it. He also met with education and political leaders, and opened an agricultural trade office in New Delhi to promote Virginia wood products, apples, processed foods and soybean oil.
In interviews before he left, O’Malley, who is taking a delegation of more than 100, said he would take a different tack. In his trip, which is also the first to India by a sitting Maryland governor, O’Malley said he would seek to harness the state’s growing number of high-tech, bio-tech, life science and cyber firms to attract Indian start-ups, investment and collaboration.
O’Malley has roughly 36 meetings planned, and representatives from more than 40 businesses, most with strong connections to India, are on the list of those accompanying the governor. First lady Catherine Curran O’Malley, a District Court judge, also has meetings planned aimed at beginning a judicial exchange.
The delegation also includes Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III and House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (Montgomery), who in 1990 became the first Indian-American elected to a state legislative body.
For Leggett and Montgomery officials, it’s the latest in a lengthy effort to bolster the county’s business image globally, having already made trips to South Korea, China, Israel and India.
Robert L. Walker, assistant secretary for international operations with Maryland’s Department of Business and Economic Development, said six to 12 deals with Indian firms are close to being finalized and will be announced during or after the trip.
Following O’Malley’s Asia trade mission, he touted promises he said would bring $85 million in direct foreign investment to Maryland, including dozens of jobs with a Chinese biotech firm. McDonnell did not announce any deals following his trip in May.
O’Malley’s China visit, which cost more than $100,000, also came under scrutiny in connection with a Washington Post report that revealed a Maryland casino developer has since sought Chinese investments in an Anne Arundel County slots facility in exchange for EB-5 Visas for Chinese nationals.
Walker cautioned that the deals announced from the India trip would probably be smaller, given the state’s relatively new relationships with governments and businesses there.
Unlike in China, where Maryland has maintained a trade office for about 15 years, the state closed its India outpost during the recession for budget reasons. It then reopened it in Delhi in 2009 as one of several “contingency” trade offices. The others are in Russia, Colombia, South Korea, Taiwan and the Western Balkans.
The India office consists of one contract employee, Sanjiv Khanna, and Maryland pays him hourly, typically for part-time work to help companies in the state that are trying to enter or research Indian markets, Walker said.
A PowerPoint presentation about the trip that O’Malley’s administration has circulated in recent weeks begins with several slides titled “Why India?” Among other economic indicators, India was Maryland’s 11th largest export market last year, and trade between the two increased nearly 17 percent from 2008 to 2010.
By McMillan’s analysis, O’Malley’s administration has done one important thing to help ensure a governor’s trade mission is successful: prepared.
Walker, Rajan Natarajan, the state’s deputy secretary of state, and others traveled to India in August to scout sites, cities and companies.
“We’ve been working on this for six months,” Walker said. “We hope it creates a lot of opportunities to open a lot of doors, either to convince those who have a presence here to expand it, or for those who do not to consider Maryland as their global gateway to the United States.”
Staff writers Laura Vozzella and Victor Zapana contributed to this report.