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Six businessmen to join Villaraigosa on Asia trade mission

On his second trade mission to Asia, which begins Sunday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will be accompanied by just six businessmen, a sleek strike force compared with the robust retinue of almost four dozen business and community leaders who raced around with him five years ago.

The mayor’s office said the delegation was intentionally limited to enable Villaraigosa to focus on key meetings, including some with high-ranking government leaders, at which large groups would be prohibited or would distract from building the personal ties that are seen as crucial to business deals in Asia.

“We will continue to strengthen important relationships while working to increase investment, trade and tourism in L.A.,” Villaraigosa said in a statement before he departed.

Over 11 days, the mayor will visit Beijing, Chongqing and Shanghai in China; Tokyo and Sendai in Japan; and Seoul in South Korea. Villaraigosa plans to visit Sendai to learn about how the region responded to the earthquake and tsunami. On the trip, he will speak to business and trade groups, host receptions for customers of the city’s port and airports and meet with business and political leaders.

“The future of Los Angeles is tied closely to our neighbors in the Pacific Rim,” the mayor said. “We must leverage our assets in this global marketplace to create jobs here in Los Angeles.”

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The businessmen joining the mayor are a high-powered group: a former White House chief of staff, a former U.S. commerce secretary, a top official at an investment management firm, two top officials from a rapidly expanding fashion firm and the head of the U.S. pavilion at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. Some have also donated significant sums to the mayor and his causes.

Mickey Kantor, a Los Angeles lawyer who served as U.S. trade representative and commerce secretary, arrived in Beijing on Friday. “My role is ex-ex-everything,” said Kantor, who noted that he has developed many contacts in Asia over the years. “That’s how the Chinese think of me.”

Kantor said the mayor invited him to help sell the city to Asian businesses. He said he has clients in Asia, whom he plans to meet with separately, but declined to name them. “L.A. is the gateway economically, politically, socially and culturally to Asia, particularly to China,” he said. “I’m trying to create an atmosphere where Chinese entrepreneurs and others will invest in L.A.”

He noted that the mayor will be meeting with Huawei Technologies Co., the world’s second-largest provider of telecom and Internet technology. “They are of course anxious to be in L.A.,” he said.

Kantor’s firm, Mayer Brown, has lobbied the city for clients. Kantor, who is not a registered lobbyist, has spoken with city officials about a proposed $500-million BNSF Railway transportation hub near the port, which has drawn opposition from some nearby residents and environmentalists. He donated $1,000 to Villaraigosa’s 2005 mayoral campaign, but he said the two have not been close political allies.

He noted that the city is not picking up the tab for him or the other businessmen on the trip. “We’re doing it on our own nickel,” he said.

The chief executive and the vice chairman of Forever 21, a Los Angeles fashion company that has been a major backer of the mayor and his goals, are also slated to be on the trip. CEO Do Won “Don” Chang, who came to California from South Korea when he was 18, was also on the last trade mission. The mayor’s office said Forever 21 would announce that it is opening three stores in China. Chang will be accompanied by Sung Won Sohn, who also came to the United States from South Korea. An economist, he serves on the company’s board and was named to the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners by Villaraigosa.

Forever 21 and its executives have generously supported Villaraigosa and his initiatives, including pledging $1 million to his drive to plant a million trees and giving $100,000 to his successful bid to gain influence on the Los Angeles Unified School District board by electing three new members.

David Fisher of Capital Group International will also go on the trip. He has donated $3,500 to Villaraigosa’s political campaigns over the years and $70,000 to his school-board campaign.

The delegation also includes two businessmen who are not from Los Angeles: Thomas “Mack” McLarty, who was President Clinton’s first chief of staff, and Jose Villarreal, a San Antonio lawyer who is credited with leading the fundraising drive to complete the troubled U.S. pavilion. McLarty heads an international consulting firm in Washington, D.C., and is on the board of Union Pacific, which is the other major railroad besides BNSF that serves the city’s port.

The mayor is taking seven members of his staff, two officials from the airports, one from the port, two from the tourism office and the head of the Emergency Management Department. The city’s cost is estimated at $295,000. The previous Asia trip, which lasted 16 days, cost $471,723.

john.hoeffel@latimes.com


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