WASHINGTON (AP) – Nearly three-quarters of the nation’s governors are gathering this weekend in Washington for wide-ranging discussions of public policy, including a heroin epidemic, the threat of terrorism and the possibility of another recession. But when they go out to dinner afterward, they’ll be talking about what the rest of Washington is obsessed with: presidential politics.
“As soon as we adjourn for the evening, it is topic No. 1, no question about it,” said Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, the vice chairman of the National Governors Association and a friend and supporter of Hillary Clinton. “Who’s up, who’s down, what’s going to happen?”
The governors’ association has historically struggled to gain attention for its bipartisan gatherings. And the governors recognize that the task may be more difficult than ever this year, given the bickering between Clinton and Bernie Sanders and Republican front-runner Donald Trump’s headline-grabbing style.
“You can be drowned out by other events of the day that the press decides is more important,” said Republican Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah, the chairman of the association. “Some of our stuff is pretty mundane.”
One thing this election has shown: For presidential candidates, being a governor isn’t what it used to be.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, once touted as a formidable White House contender, dropped out of the race last September. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey suspended his campaign after a sixth-place finish in the GOP New Hampshire primary. Former governors Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Martin O’Malley of Maryland also ended their presidential bids. And former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is struggling to remain relevant in the GOP field.
The only governor who is still running for president, Republican John Kasich of Ohio, is skipping the winter meeting of the governors’ association, but that’s nothing new. His administration decided in 2011 to stop paying annual dues to the group, a step that Republican governors in Florida, Idaho, Maine, South Carolina and Texas have also taken. While the governors cited budget concerns when they stopped paying dues, some conservatives have also criticized the NGA for its role in developing the Common Core academic standards.
Democrats Jerry Brown of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York and Republican Bruce Rautner of Illinois are also staying home, leaving the meeting without the governors of the nation’s five most populous states.
The association’s new executive director, Scott Pattison, took over in December with a clear mandate: Make the NGA more relevant. He acknowledges it won’t be easy, especially during an election year.
“It seems that it’s just so much more interesting to focus on some of the more dramatic rhetoric,” Pattison said.
The governors are trying to send Washington the message that they don’t have the luxury of retreating into partisan gridlock. Whether it’s addiction to heroin and other opioids, a possible economic downturn or natural disasters or terrorist attacks within their borders, governors are expected to take action and solve problems. Herbert and McAuliffe have met in recent weeks with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, as well as the House and Senate Democratic leaders.
“Collectively, we all have similar issues that we’re dealing with,” McAuliffe said. “We want to work closer with Washington because we need more action out of Washington.”
On Thursday, the governors released an 18-point series of recommendations for addressing opioid addiction, which is killing 78 Americans daily, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Topping the governors’ wish list is for Congress to authorize emergency funding to states to address the crisis.
Meanwhile, the governors are embracing the new mandate from Congress for states to develop their own metrics for public education measures. One of the architects of that bill, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, will receive a first-of-its-kind award from the governors’ association for collaboration between federal and state leaders.
The award is part of an effort by the governors’ association to distance itself from Common Core, which some critics saw as symptomatic of federal overreach into education policy.
“We’ve totally moved beyond Common Core,” Pattison said.
Democratic Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware said the governors’ association meeting usually gives him good ideas to bring home to his state, whether anybody pays attention or not.
“We don’t get measured based on whether we give a great speech,” he said. “We get measured on whether we get things done. We, of course, as governors, think that is the right measuring stick.”