Stark political divides overshadow gathering of U.S. governors

PORTLAND, Maine — Stark political divides among the states on abortion, gun rights and other issues are overshadowing a meeting this week of the nation’s governors, who still hope to find common ground in a polarized climate.

The National Governors Association kicks off its summer meeting today, the first time the group has met in-person since 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic began. The session in Maine follows recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have deepened the rift between red and blue states, by overturning Roe v. Wade and striking down gun restrictions in New York.

The association’s leaders say there’s still room for bipartisanship — at least on other issues.

“The National Governors Association is the last standing, true bipartisan group that gets things done,” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who is wrapping up his yearlong term as the association’s chair, said in an interview.

Hutchinson is handing the reins of the group to Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, who will serve as its next chair. The two governors last month announced 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 before Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed a sweeping, bipartisan gun violence measure that includes billions in new funding for mental health and school safety. The task force is comprised of eight governors, equally divided between Republicans and Democrats.

Hutchinson said he sees the group helping shepherd that law’s implementation at the state level.

“What I see this task force doing is being able to help shape the rules for the grant programs for the states to make sure we have the flexibility, that the mental health resources and others have the fewest amount of strings attached,” he said.

He said he also sees the group providing information on best practices for school safety and red flag laws that some states have enacted that make it easier for authorities to take weapons from people determined to be dangerous.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, who serves on the task force, said that while she’s grateful for the action from Washington, she thinks more can be done in the states on a bipartisan basis.

“It is not about protecting one political ideology or another,” Whitmer said. “It’s about making our communities safer, making our cities safer, making our classrooms safer.”

Another task force member, Republican Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah, also sought common ground on the gun control debate. He acknowledged that any change to gun policy would invite controversy in his state, yet encourages politicians to listen to proposals from across the political spectrum, including funding for school security, counselors, gun buybacks and red flag laws.

“I’ve asked everyone to be open to every conversation,” Cox, the association’s incoming vice chairman, said in a press conference last month.

Hutchinson said he doesn’t see the governors association addressing abortion following the reversal of Roe. That ruling has pit states against each other, with “trigger” bans taking effect almost immediately in a number of states after the ruling.

Republicans in some states are looking at ways to prevent women from going out of state for abortions, steps that could include going after abortion providers. In response, some Democratic governors have signed measures banning their state’s law enforcement agencies from enforcing other states’ abortion bans. That includes Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, whose state is hosting the meeting.

When she signed an executive order last week, Mills said she “will stand in the way of any effort to undermine, roll back or outright eliminate the right to safe and legal abortion in Maine.”

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom of California has even run a campaign ad in Florida criticizing that state’s Republican leaders.

Partisanship was underscored on the eve of the gathering as New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu campaigned alongside fellow Republican Paul LePage, a former Maine governor who hopes to unseat Mills.

Nonetheless, Hutchinson said the group has been able to work together on other issues, being a voice for the states during the COVID-19 pandemic and during negotiations over the bipartisan infrastructure package. The group’s meeting this week will include discussions about economic recovery and mental health for youth. It also will highlight computer science education in schools, which has been a priority of Hutchinson’s.

“We have to find solutions. We don’t have any other option. We have to lead,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson’s chairmanship of the group has elevated his national profile as he considers running for president in 2024. The two-term governor, who leaves office in January, has criticized former President Donald Trump and has urged fellow Republicans to move on from the 2020 election.

Murphy is coming into the chairmanship after narrowly winning reelection as governor last year. An unapologetic progressive, he recently signed legislation enshrining abortion rights into law and a new package of gun control bills.

Murphy, who also will become chairman of the Democratic Governors Association next year, has warned his party to learn the lesson of his close reelection victory last year, an off-year election cycle when Democrats lost the governor’s race in Virginia.

“I think we have to talk about affordability, opportunity, that the American dream is still alive and well,” Murphy said after signing his state’s record $50.6 billion budget last month.