Gov. Janet Mills at the Democratic State Convention in May. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

With U.S. states tearing into rival camps over the rights of women, voters and gun owners, the desirability of free and fair elections and how to address the attempted coup on Jan. 6, 2021, the nation’s governors will come together in Maine this week seeking common ground on more mundane policy matters.

The governors will gather in Portland Wednesday to Friday for the semiannual meeting of the National Governors Association, a nonpartisan entity representing the chief executives of the 55 states, territories and commonwealths. The meeting – last held in Maine in 1983 – typically draws hundreds of lobbyists, businesspeople, state and federal officials, and other attendees. An NGA spokesperson refused to say how many or which governors will attend.

“While this is an election year in many states and while things seem to be polarized in Congress, at the same time I think we have a lot more in common than sets us apart,” Gov. Janet Mills told the Press Herald. “It’s because of the NGA that I can pick up the phone and call (Republican Gov.) Asa Hutchinson about an issue and about what they are doing in Arkansas or call (Democratic Gov.) Gavin Newsom in California and ask his advice.”

Unlike the Republican Governors Association and Democratic Governors Association, the NGA doesn’t raise and hand out campaign cash. Instead, the Washington-based group provides a transpartisan forum for governors to collaborate on policy challenges and, when consensus is found, to lobby federal officials to take action, such as last year’s successful effort to get full federal reimbursements to the states for pandemic-related mobilizations of their National Guard units.

But building personal relationships across the political divide has always been one of the NGA’s greatest strengths, past and present governors say, even if there are fewer areas of agreement than might be found among members of the DGA and RGA.

“I always felt you could work together and get more things done through the NGA than any other organization,” said former Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat who held the Blaine House from 2003 to 2011. “It’s one of the few places where the two sides would sit down and work together. And governors confide in one another because we aren’t competing directly with each other. You find out what works and what doesn’t work and why.”


Mills, though serving in a more polarized time than her Democratic predecessor, agreed. “If I want to know what other states are doing on school lunch programs and the federal administration of them, or what other states are doing about safer schools, or on cybersecurity, I can quickly look online at NGA’s research and find out what governors are most active in those areas  and contact them.”

Former Gov. Paul LePage, again the Republican nominee for the office this year, was not a fan of the group and stopped paying dues to it in 2012. “I get no value out of those meetings,” he said at the time. “They are too politically correct, and everybody is lovey-dovey, and no decisions are ever made.”

The official agenda for this week’s meeting focuses on computer science education, cybersecurity, the post-pandemic recovery of travel and tourism, infrastructure and youth mental health care. Dolly Parton will make a virtual appearance Friday to speak to the governors about her early childhood literacy efforts, which include a program that mails free books to children.

“Throughout my time as chairman of the National Governors Association, I have seen Republicans and Democrats come together to address some of our nation’s biggest challenges,” Hutchinson, whose two-year term as chair concludes at the end of the meeting Friday, said in a written statement. He said more than 40 colleagues had signed on to a compact he’s championed that seeks to boost access to computer science education in schools.

Given the escalating political instability, some would like to see the governors seize the opportunity to take a bipartisan stance in the defense of democratic norms.

David Pepper, former chair of the Ohio Democratic Party and the author of “Laboratories of Autocracy,” a book about anti-democratic measures being taken by state governments, said the governors could make an enormous difference.


“The frontline of the attack on democracy is happening in the states and it’s been happening for decades – the Supreme Court rulings we just saw are basically backing up state-level laws passed by extremist legislatures that aren’t accountable to voters because of gerrymandering ,” Pepper said. “At some point if governors were to come together and said that as a group we are going to take a stand against the spiraling down of democracy – that there will be certain standards and safeguards to democracy we’ll all hold to – they could play a massive role.”

Baldacci said NGA members could help stabilize the country by, for instance, building a national framework to deal with the implications of the Supreme Court’s repeal of the federal right to an abortion, even in cases of rape, incest or the mother’s survival. “The states now have a lot of latitude in what they want to do and governors have a lot of power within states,” Baldacci said. “Even if they were able to create a working group to look at it on a national basis, not just as individual states, that would be really important groundwork because you’re going to have a lot of people moving from state to state to get things accomplished.  You can’t have us going in 50 different directions.”

Asked whether she thought NGA members should try to take up these more urgent and divisive issues, Mills did not express interest. “I haven’t seen any proposals along those lines,” she said. “The focus of these meetings was on the priorities of the governors themselves from the various states and those include education, computer science, and school opioid abuse.”

Gov. Phil Murphy, D-N.J., who will take over as NGA chair at the end of the meeting, told the Press Herald in writing: “It’s no secret that these are deeply unsettling times – but just as troubling as recent Supreme Court decisions and tragedies is the failure of elected officials across the nation to transcend partisanship and adequately respond to these new and ongoing challenges,” he said. “I firmly believe that elected officials on both sides can still come together to do good, not just for the individuals who voted for them, but for all their constituents.”

Mills said she looked forward to working with her colleagues at the meeting on strengthening computer science curricula across the country and to welcoming them to Maine, where they were originally going to meet in 2020 before the pandemic canceled the in-person event. “I want them to see Maine and for the people they bring with them to enjoy the state,” she said.

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