PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Stark political divisions between states on abortion, gun rights and other issues threatened to overshadow a meeting this week of the nation’s governors, who continued to seek common ground in a polarized climate.
The National Governors Association kicked off its summer meeting on Thursday, the first in-person meeting since 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. The session follows recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that widened the divide between red and blue states, overturning Roe v. Wade and rolling back gun restrictions in New York.
Association leaders say there is still room for bipartisanship, at least on other issues.
“The National Governors Association is the last truly bipartisan group getting things done,” said Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who is finishing his one-year term as president of the association.
Hutchinson hands over the reins of the group to Democratic Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey, who will be the next president. The two governors announced last month that the association was forming a bipartisan task force to make recommendations on preventing mass shootings, following the massacre at a Texas elementary school that killed 19 children and two teachers.
The task force was announced ahead of congressional passage and President Joe Biden signed a sweeping bipartisan measure against gun violence that includes billions of dollars in new funding for mental health and school safety. The task force is made up of eight governors, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
Hutchinson said he sees the group helping guide the implementation of this law at the state level.
“What I see this task force doing is being able to help shape the grant program rules for states to make sure we have the flexibility, that mental health and other resources have least conditions,” he said.
He said he also sees the group providing information on school safety best practices and the red flag laws that some states have enacted that make it easier for authorities to take guns from people considered dangerous.
Another member of the task force, Republican Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah, also sought common ground on the gun control debate. He acknowledged that any changes to gun policy would be controversial in his state, but encourages politicians to listen to proposals from all political walks of life, including school safety funding, councilors, school buyouts, and more. weapons and laws on the red flag.
“I’ve asked everyone to be open to all conversations,” Cox, the association’s new vice president, said at a news conference last month.
The public agenda avoided any high-profile partisan issues. Thursday’s sessions featured Intel CEO Patrick Gelsinger and the leader of a global robotics competition for a discussion on computer science education. Another session focused on travel and tourism.
The governors also hosted several other events, including a mixer on Wednesday night and a lobster cookout scheduled for Thursday night.
Security was heightened with road closures and a heavy police presence. Organizers declined to say if there was a specific threat or concern.
Nineteen governors, including the governor of Puerto Rico, attended the event. Governors from several major states were absent, including California Governor Gavin Newsom, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, New York Governor Kathy Huchul and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Hutchinson said he doesn’t see the governors association addressing abortion after Roe’s overthrow. This ruling pitted states against each other, with “trigger” bans taking effect almost immediately after the ruling in a number of states.
Republicans in some states are looking for ways to prevent women from going out of state to get abortions, measures that could include prosecuting abortion providers. In response, some Democratic governors have signed measures barring their state’s law enforcement agencies from enforcing other states’ abortion bans. That includes Democratic Governor Janet Mills, who officially welcomed the governors to her state on Thursday.
When she signed an executive order last week, Mills said she would “oppose any effort to undermine, roll back, or outright eliminate the right to safe and legal abortion in Maine.”
The partisanship was underscored on the eve of the rally as New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu campaigned alongside fellow Republican Paul LePage, a former Maine governor who hopes to unseat Mills.
Newsom, the governor of California, even ran an ad campaign in Florida criticizing that state’s Republican leaders. And protesters supporting reproductive choice gathered outside an event some of the governors attended on the Portland waterfront.
Nonetheless, Hutchinson said the group has been able to work together on other issues, being a voice for states during the COVID-19 pandemic and during negotiations on the bipartisan infrastructure package.
Republican Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said governors tend to get along — and they tend to focus on things where they can get results rather than where they disagree.
“Although we disagree on different issues, we as a group have much more in common than what sets us apart,” said Mills, the host governor.
Hutchinson’s chairmanship of the group has raised his national profile as he plans to run for president in 2024. The two-term governor, who leaves office in January, has criticized former President Donald Trump and urged his fellow Republicans to pass in the 2020 election.
Murphy takes the presidency after narrowly winning re-election as governor last year. An unabashedly progressive, he recently signed legislation making abortion rights into law and a new set of gun control bills.
Even though they are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, Hutchinson praised his successor.
“Part of being a human being is that you recognize the good quality that you see in people, even if you fundamentally disagree and are on a different team. I think that’s needed in America today,” he said.
DeMillo reported from Little Rock, Arkansas. Associated Press writer Joey Cappelletti in Lansing, Michigan; Mike Catalini in Trenton, New Jersey; Sam Metz in Salt Lake City; and Patrick Whittle in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.
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