U.S. Governors Take Davos Trip Critics Call Alpine Boondoggle

Last week, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed a bill in Columbus regulating puppy mills with Sammy, a diminutive bichon, perched on the desk watching him. Next week, Kasich will mingle with the likes of Bill Gates at a ski resort in Switzerland.

Kasich and U.S. Governors John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Jack Markell of Delaware, representing the National Governors Association as this year’s chairman, are among more than 2,500 executives, political leaders, celebrities and others attending the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos from Jan. 23-27.

While critics say jetting to the Swiss Alps to schmooze is a waste of time and resources, Kasich and other officials say it offers an unparalleled opportunity for networking that can lead to new business investment. It’s also a chance to leave behind balancing budgets, fixing roads and other nuts-and-bolts work. Instead, they can discuss such topics as “unleashing entrepreneurial innovations” and sell the virtues of their states.

“I don’t want to go somewhere just to go somewhere,” Kasich told reporters after a Jan. 16 event near Columbus. “But if I can get to a marketplace where there are going to be many people who are decision-makers, and I can tell them about Ohio’s story, I think it’s worth it.”

‘Resilient Dynamism’

Kasich is participating in four panels at Davos, including one on manufacturing where he will discuss his efforts to align education and training with available jobs. He said he also wants to meet privately with Japanese executives and other leaders to win more jobs for Ohio.

Hickenlooper also attended last year’s meeting in Davos, as did Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy. They were selected as part of a process in which three or four governors are invited each year based on criteria including their national political standing and the presence of global companies in their states, said Paul Smyke, a special adviser to the chairman of the World Economic Forum.

This year’s five-day meeting features panel discussions and forums during the day under the theme “resilient dynamism.” Attending will be as many as 50 heads of government, including Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Germany’s Angela Merkel, and 1,500 business leaders such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein and JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon.

Bold-Faced Names

At night, there are dinners and parties hosted by companies including Coca-Cola Co. and Accenture Plc, and the event draws celebrities such as actress Charlize Theron.

Kasich said he hopes to meet Merkel, and he and other governors say they try to get as many one-on-one private meetings with executives as they can.

The perspective of U.S. governors is valuable, and they can connect with executives and build relationships, Smyke said in a telephone interview from New York.

“The image that people are skiing down the slopes and connecting at high altitude while they sip champagne is just entirely wrong,” Smyke said.

Expedition Aborted

Even so, such trips leave governors open to criticism. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley canceled his jaunt to Davos this year because with a busy legislative session, “it’s definitely not a time to be out of the country,” Takirra Winfield, a spokeswoman, said by phone.

While Winfield said the trip would have been justified, Tony O’Donnell, Republican leader of the Maryland House of Delegates, said before O’Malley canceled that it would be as much about aiding the governor’s ambitions as helping the state.

“This just seems like a pure discretionary boondoggle,” O’Donnell said in a telephone interview.

In Ohio, state Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern criticized that the cost of airfare and four nights’ hotel for Kasich and two staffers is being paid by JobsOhio, the private, nonprofit entity Kasich created last year to oversee development. The group doesn’t disclose its donors, raising concerns about attempts to curry political favor with the governor, Redfern said by phone.

Laura Jones, a JobsOhio spokeswoman, estimated the costs at “a few thousand dollars” in an e-mail.

Tuber Salesman

Hickenlooper paid his own way to Davos last year and is again this year, while the state’s Office of Economic Development & International Trade paid the $4,542 for Executive Director Ken Lund, who joined Hickenlooper, spokeswoman Kathy Green said in an e-mail. The National Governors Association is paying for Markell’s flight, Catherine Rossi, a spokeswoman, said by e-mail.

The Colorado governor had 25 meetings with industry officials in Davos last year whose companies are doing business in Colorado and are headquartered elsewhere, including the chief information officer for Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT), the head of alternative energy at BP Plc (BP) and the chief executive of Medtronic Inc. (MDT), Lund said in a telephone interview.

“It’s hard to replicate that number of meetings in a year’s worth of travel,” Lund said.

Still, Lund said the most tangible result from the trip he can talk about was a potential increase in potato shipments from Colorado to Mexico because of a chance encounter Hickenlooper had with the Mexican president that led to a trade mission to Mexico City later that year. There hasn’t yet been an increase in sales, the Colorado Department of Agriculture said in an e- mail.

The trip to Davos can be successful for governors if they have an outgoing sales personality, said Edward W. “Ned” Hill, an economist and dean of the College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University who has studied economic development.

“The important things don’t take place on the stage,” Hill said by phone. “It all takes place in the cocktail parties.”