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A Traveling Salesman With a New Pitch

Gov. Pete Wilson will trek around Asia next month trying to sell California goods and investment opportunities--and himself as a vigorous producer of jobs for a stagnant state.

There’ll be no more California bashing, no more whining about the state being “a bad product.” Wilson has become a California booster and he wants every voter to know it--and to ignore Treasurer Kathleen Brown when she caustically compares him to a salesman scorning his own product.

That was the outmoded old product, Wilson will tell you. The new model comes with business-friendly features designed by him and the 1993 Legislature: $400 million in business tax breaks, including easing of the so-called unitary tax on multinational corporations, a reformed workers’ compensation system and streamlined environmental regulations.

California now is “a great product,” the governor gushes. But if he hadn’t groused about the old product and taken a lot of guff, the Legislature never would have been prodded into making improvements.

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“He didn’t switch messages because people were giving him a bad time,” says Dan Schnur, the governor’s spokesman. “He switched because changes were made. . . . What kind of credibility does a salesman have who tries to sell a bad product?”

Answer, according to one anonymous Wilson adviser: About the same level of credibility former President George Bush deserved when he denied that the nation was in recession.

So California--already the nation’s leading export state--"is back in business” for companies looking to generate jobs and taxable profits, Wilson says. And he will attempt to sell that message in Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and China from Nov. 20 to Dec. 5. Then he’ll pitch it again on the road across America in January.

Notes Schnur: “It’s a lot easier to get news coverage in St. Louis than Guangzhou.”

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Regardless of all the new business-friendly legislation, California’s image still suffers from a deteriorating quality of life--congestion, pollution and violence. And that makes Wilson’s task tougher in trying to promote tourism and business expansion.

Jonathan Taro Kaji of Gardena, president of a real estate consulting company whom Wilson recently appointed to head the state’s foreign trade office in Tokyo, says California’s image in Japan has been tarnished by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the recent random killing of a Japanese exchange student in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“There’s a perception of high crime in California,” Kaji says. “People simply view California has one monolithic state; they don’t see the riot in Los Angeles as being in an isolated location. That’s an image we want to work toward correcting. . . . The Japanese need to hear what (anti-crime) efforts are being made.”

But there will be an even more challenging chore for Wilson: Convincing the folks back home--at least those even aware the governor has left the state--that he is not just off on some expense-paid sightseeing junket.

The public is justified in being cynical about “trade missions” by elected officials. And it is this cynicism that makes Wilson’s staff jittery. “You don’t really think this is a boondoggle do you?” quickly asks Ira Goldman, the governor’s trade adviser. “This is going to be an intense, difficult and packed trip.”

And so it appears to be. But Wilson missed an opportunity to allay cynicism--and may have contributed to it--by sleeping in Tuesday morning and skipping the 10:30 news conference he had called to announce the two-week trip. Staffers pointed out he had been up late for several nights signing bills.

Cynics may also speculate about political motives when he is photographed eating dinner on Thanksgiving Day with California troops along the Korean DMZ. But as much as anything, this likely will be just a governor trying to nostalgically replay his youth as a Marine infantry platoon leader.

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Politically, Wilson probably can help his underdog reelection campaign by ceremoniously announcing during the trip that a foreign company has decided to expand in California and create a few hundred jobs--or that Japan and/or Korea have agreed to lower their high tariffs on the state’s agricultural products, such as citrus and beef.

So Administration officials are hustling to pre-negotiate some legitimate trip accomplishments that the governor can announce in Asia.

“The trip shouldn’t hurt him as long as he doesn’t offer photographers a lot of pictures of himself sitting by the pool sipping wine,” says Times pollster John Brennan.

Actually, he may as well sip some sake and enjoy himself. Most people will figure that’s basically what he’s doing anyway.


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