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Gains from governors’ travel unclear

Still, Patrick hoping to push state interests

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / January 31, 2011

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Governor Paul Cellucci dropped $461 at a restaurant in Australia. Governor William F. Weld accidentally gave an Irish cocktail waitress an internship at Massport. Governor Michael S. Dukakis fought off a mutiny while in Europe, when his lieutenant governor tried to seize power back home.

Now, Governor Deval Patrick says he, too, wants a shot at the cosmopolitan world of international trade missions.

For past governors, trade trips have produced, in addition to their share of political lore, a mixed record. Successes are often anecdotal, and deals signed between foreign and domestic businesses are seldom traceable to a single meeting or trip.

To Patrick, the missions are an essential plank in his second-term promise to put more people to work.

Patrick has embraced a plea from the state’s most powerful business moguls — a group that includes Patriots owner Robert Kraft and former advertising executive Jack Connors — to step up his profile in countries that do business with Massachusetts.

The corporate chiefs believe Patrick can help sell more Massachusetts technology abroad, bring international investment into the state, and create joint research and development efforts.

Measuring value in these missions has long sparked debate, however, with critics saying the efforts too often lack follow-through and amount to junkets.

Proponents argue that a governor’s stature and ability to meet directly with heads of state can initiate long-term relationships. “If the governor’s there, along with some elected officials, it really impresses folks,’’ said Brian P. Lees, a former Republican state senate leader who traveled with Weld to China, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. “But more importantly, you get right to the source and the government can make decisions right on the spot.’’

Weld was seen as setting the standard for foreign travel during seven years in office, with 11 trips covering 17 countries and five continents. Cellucci was also a noted globe-trotter, visiting eight countries as governor, and another 11 countries as Weld’s lieutenant.

Governor Mitt Romney, who once labeled such missions “boondoggles,’’ planned a mission to Israel and then canceled it amid criticism that he was spending too much time on his presidential bid.

Patrick, in his first term, went on just one trade mission, to China in 2007.

The group of 14 chief executives advising Patrick, dubbed the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, has preliminarily suggested he focus on four countries — China, India, Israel, and Brazil — to build on existing business ties, according to Dan O’Connell, who served as Patrick’s economic development secretary and now leads the partnership. O’Connell said it would be difficult to plan more than two quality trips per year.

A Patrick administration official said the governor is looking at Israel — which has a large number of venture capital, charity, and technology ties to the state and its universities — as his first destination.

“We have some very powerful things to sell about Massachusetts,’’ Patrick said in an interview earlier this month, noting that many of his counterparts around the country travel abroad. “So we better be out there doing it.’’

Governors typically compile lists of deals made on the trips. But there is seldom proof the deals would not have happened otherwise. And there has been little study of the long-term value of trade missions.

The Globe sought to contact business leaders who attended missions over the past two decades, though many were no longer with their companies.

In 1991, during a Weld mission through Asia, a small Plymouth company called Microway struck a deal to sell software development tools to Samsung. Weld was eager to promote it, because it mitigated some of the sting he felt when Hyundai rejected his efforts to sell them the idle General Motors plant in Framingham.

“It was actually very valuable,’’ Ann Fried, Microway’s chief executive, said of the trip in a recent interview.

She was unable to say what role the trip played in getting the contract with Samsung. She said Asia had been an important trading partner for the company, but the region now accounts for less than 1 percent of her company’s business. “The benefit was probably between five and 10 years,’’ she said.

Six years later, in 1997, venture capital executive Clinton Harris traveled with Weld to Israel, one of three trips the governor made there.

Harris said he had already been working independently with Israeli partners to set up a venture capital firm there named Gemini. Weld and his aides wanted him to announce the deal during the trip. But the deal hit a snag, and Harris needed a change in the Israeli tax code to resolve it.

The announcement was called off, but then Weld set up a meeting with Harris and the Israeli finance minister. The code changed months later, and probably would have even if Weld had not gone to Israel, Harris said.

“But the fact that the searchlight got fixed on it by Bill Weld I’m sure accelerated it by a few months,’’ Harris said.

Patrick’s 2007 trip to China, which cost $155,000 in public funds, has so far failed to fulfill one of its top goals — nonstop passenger flights between Beijing and Boston. But the Patrick administration credits the trip for Chinese companies’ $15 million investment in Massachusetts — including one that created 40 jobs in Marlborough.

O’Connell said Patrick was able to command significant respect in China, not only because he is governor, but also because he was perceived as a close friend of two leading presidential candidates at the time, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

“The fact that he [Patrick] was there got us into meetings with people involved in government that we probably wouldn’t have seen,’’ said Nobel Prize winning biologist Craig Mello of the University of Massachusetts, a member of the delegation. At the same time, he said, “it’s hard to . . . put a finger on what was accomplished on that visit that was really substantial.’’

Many trade mission veterans agree that the key to sustained success from a trip requires being judicious in picking destinations and meetings.

Timing is also important — as Dukakis, who seldom left the country, learned. His trip to Europe was notably delayed by a day because of a battle with Lieutenant Governor Evelyn Murphy, who went on to initiate a series of orders to eliminate state jobs and sell off property in his absence.

And governors are always susceptible to accusations that they are evading problems back home simply to have a good time.

Rob Gray, a Republican strategist who traveled with Weld to Israel and Ireland when he served as the governor’s spokesman, said some trips can be useful. But often, he said, countries are chosen simply because a governor wants to go there.

“There’s a lot of fluff added to trade missions, whether it’s an added country that doesn’t offer a lot in terms of future trade, or political meetings that have more to do with advancing a governor’s name,’’ he said.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.