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Governor Lands Lead Role as State Salesman

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took a break from Sacramento politics last week to do a job he’s a lot more familiar with: celebrity pitchman. Except in this case, he wasn’t promoting an action film. He was selling the state of California.

Last week, the governor and wife Maria Shriver filmed a 30-second commercial on a Los Angeles beach. The ad, to be aired around the world, is part of a campaign aimed at burnishing California’s global image, boosting tourism and exports and attracting more foreign investment.

Schwarzenegger, known in Hollywood as a zealous self-promoter, said Tuesday that his commercial would “sell California, how beautiful it is and how great it is to do business here.” The governor’s office wouldn’t reveal any more details about the campaign, which is supposed to be unveiled in the next few months. The beach commercial doesn’t yet have an air date.

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Business executives are betting that having an international movie star in the top job in Sacramento will be a bonus for trade-dependent California, at least considering the non-marquee-level governor he replaced. Foreign officials, hopeful their country will appear on the governor’s travel itinerary, agree.

“If Gray Davis turned up in Sydney, I’m sorry, he may be the greatest guy in the world, but I don’t think anyone would know who he was,” said Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who was in Los Angeles recently to promote Australia-California cultural and business ties. “If Arnold Schwarzenegger turned up in Sydney, even babies in prams would know who he was.”

To be sure, star power alone won’t be enough to get foreign firms to set up shop in California or purchase more “made in California” products. Business leaders said the state still needed to tackle the problems that have driven domestic and foreign firms away, such as escalating workers’ compensation and energy costs, a burdensome regulatory process and relatively high taxes.

It’s no longer enough that Sunkist oranges, Silicon Valley software and Hollywood movies enjoy a reputation for quality around the world. They face other problems, such as high tariffs, lower-cost competition and enterprising pirates.

And though travel to California has gotten cheaper, thanks to the weak dollar, foreign visitors face the continued threat of terrorist attacks and more restrictive immigration controls.

Schwarzenegger “can open any door he wants to,” said Dominic Ng, chairman and chief executive of San Marino-based East West Bancorp Inc., a leading player in Asia trade. “But in order to get business, he needs to have a plan. He needs to get the right people together to give him the right advice: These are the places you need to go to, these are the companies you need to target.”

Christopher Padilla, assistant U.S. trade representative, said Schwarzenegger could take a page from another celebrity turned politician, former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. The onetime pro-wrestling star surprised naysayers by becoming a persuasive advocate for China trade and bolstering his state’s visibility abroad. He led the largest state trade mission in history to China in 2002.

At this point, there’s no script in Sacramento for what role Schwarzenegger will play in promotion efforts abroad. He hasn’t slated any overseas travel because of pressing issues at home, said spokesman Vince Sollitto, who added that the governor’s first priority was addressing the state’s $14-billion budget shortfall and reforming its workers’ compensation system.

Still, that hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm of business leaders in the Golden State, where trade accounts for about 20% of the $1.4-trillion economy.

“He’s a master of selling things, and California has a special brand to sell,” said Joe Harrison, president of the California Council for International Trade, a San Francisco group whose members include Intel Corp., Gap Inc., venture capital firm ChinaVest, Boeing Co. and Wells Fargo & Co.

As an action star, Schwarzenegger tops the list of foreign male celebrities in Japan and Germany. He has helped peddle millions of dollars of goods around the world, hawking everything from energy drinks and instant noodles to satellite TV. And he has a proven flair for publicity: At the height of his film career, he had a giant plastic replica of himself anchored in the harbor at the Cannes Film Festival.

After being wooed by the governor, Virgin Atlantic Airways Inc. founder Richard Branson selected San Francisco as one of four potential sites for the headquarters of a new U.S.-based discount airline to be called Virgin USA. The British billionaire, who initially met Schwarzenegger on a movie set, told reporters in Australia that the governor had offered some attractive incentives to set up shop in California, including the possibility of tax breaks.

“I don’t believe California would have been a finalist without Gov. Schwarzenegger. It simply would not have happened,” said Kandace Bender, deputy director of San Francisco International Airport, pointing to the blitz of letters the governor wrote and phone calls he made to Virgin executives during his first 10 days in office.

Since his inauguration, Canada, Australia, China, Chile, Pakistan and Austria, where Schwarzenegger was born, have sent emissaries to Sacramento or invitations for him to visit their countries.

Los Angeles business consultant Jon Kaji said he had received calls from several Japanese firms that hoped to get on the governor’s schedule.

“These companies know the value of a celebrity endorsement in today’s marketplace,” he said.

In his Jan. 6 State of the State address -- broadcast around the world on satellite television -- Schwarzenegger promised to promote California as aggressively as he has marketed himself.

“If I can sell tickets to my movies like ‘Red Sonja’ and ‘Last Action Hero,’ ” he deadpanned, “you know I can sell anything.”

Trade proponents maintain that Schwarzenegger’s active involvement in overseas promotion is especially important now. That’s because state legislators -- under pressure to cut costs -- eliminated California’s entire trade apparatus last year. They shuttered the Technology, Trade and Commerce Agency and closed its 12 offices abroad, including in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Mexico City.

The founder of Brisbane-based Monster Cable Products Inc., a producer of high-speed video and audio cables, said California’s Hong Kong office had helped his small company sign up with Dah Chong Hong Ltd., one of Asia’s leading distributors of electronic equipment.

With the Technology, Trade and Commerce Agency dismantled, Northern California entrepreneur Noel Lee believes that the next best thing would be to have a Hollywood star on the trade stump.

Schwarzenegger “is an icon in Asia,” Lee said when asked about the potential effect of a gubernatorial road trip. “If you can get him to do that, count me in.”

Times staff writer Joe Mathews contributed to this report.


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