Gov. Phil Bredesen is scheduled to leave Friday for Asia on an economic development mission, and he can be sure he has the support of all four of the major contenders who want his job.
The three Republican candidates for governor — U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey — expressed their support this week for Bredesen’s travels. Democrat Mike McWherter, who has wrapped up the Democratic primary, also backs the venture.
It’s no secret why they like what the governor is doing. They all want to produce more business and more jobs for Tennessee. Bredesen can help build relationships that will help the next governor, who will need all the economic help he can get.
Bredesen is completing his second term and cannot run again.
Bredesen, Economic and Community Development Commissioner Matt Kisber, Revenue Commissioner Reagan Farr and International Investment Director Lori Odom will represent the state on the nine-day trip.
They will participate in the Shanghai World Expo where they will help host an investment roundtable for Chinese businesses. They will meet with Tennessee companies in Hong Kong and visit the American Chamber of Commerce in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
The Asia trip is part of a long-term effort under Bredesen to build trade relationships on the continent. Tennessee opened an office in Beijing, China, in 2007.
Haslam and Ramsey have traveled on China trips before with Bredesen. Wamp is very supportive, although he makes the point that such trips always need transparency so taxpayers know what is being done on their behalf. McWherter says he would like to see the concept extended to India.
Wamp points to concrete examples of the kind of fruits that can emerge from foreign relations, and they’re not just from Asia.
“We’ve attracted significant outside investment. I know, because the Germans are all over East Tennessee, and I love it. I helped bring ’em here,” Wamp said.
Wamp, the 3rd District congressman from Chattanooga, was referring to the major investments of Volkswagen, the car maker, and Wacker Chemie, which manufactures polycrystalline silicon, used for solar panel construction.
Haslam often says he can sell Tennessee to businesses looking for a place to set up shop.
“The governor is the chief salesperson for the state,” Haslam said. “And the best way I know to sell something is to do it face to face, and so when there’s a chance to have a real reward because of that, yeah, I think the governor himself does need to go there. That’s true whether it’s for an existing business in the state who’s looking at expanding here, and it could be true if you go halfway around the globe.”
Haslam traveled with the governor to China two years ago and said the state has made some solid steps there. Haslam also noted the impact from Europe by Germany.
“Those efforts we’re making, I would not pull back on,” Haslam said. “We’ve had conversations with the governor and others in the administration on, if I’m fortunate enough to be elected, how we could have a smooth handoff on all those important relationships.”
Ramsey made the China trip in October 2007 and said he saw the benefits of having a presence there.
“It’s two things. I wouldn’t mind Chinese companies coming here and locating here, but even more important, making sure we have that export market into one of the fastest-growing economies in the world,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey, from Blountville, noted that his Senate district includes Eastman Chemical Co., which has a large presence in China. He also noted that Tennessee company FedEx has a huge China presence.
“Both of those are Tennessee-based companies, so obviously everything we do affects jobs in Tennessee, and I’ll continue that,” he said.
McWherter, son of former governor Ned McWherter, pointed to past efforts that have paid off in Tennessee.
“There are 40,000 jobs in Tennessee right now as a result of the initiatives that Gov. Lamar Alexander made and my father followed through on in Tennessee,” McWherter said. “They built a foundation in Japan, and we got 40,000 jobs out of that.
“That is something we need to be doing now, and frankly I think we need to be looking at India as well. I think those are all areas that are very fertile for recruiting industry into this state. So as governor, I assure you I will have a major focus in following up with the foundation Governor Bredesen is laying over there.”
Wamp said Bredesen can certainly make the case to Tennesseans that what he’s doing in foreign markets has been worth the effort. He also points to the value of relationships built by other prominent Tennesseans, including former Sen. Howard Baker, who was ambassador to Japan in 2001-2005. Another is former Sen. Jim Sasser, who was ambassador to China in 1995-99. But Wamp says the principle of transparency will always be important.
“You need to be real specific as to what, why, how much, and what the benefits are,” Wamp said. “Be as transparent as possible before you ever commit those resources.
“The governor has an obligation to taxpayers and the public, through the media, to say what the connections are, how much this is, and what the returns are. Just lay it all out. We live in a global economy. If you want our state to be the most dynamic economy in America, and I do, and I will make it that way, foreign markets are very important.”
Wamp said some competitive elements of attracting business, such as not revealing too much information to a competing state, would have to be considered.