PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey was sworn in Friday as leader of the nation’s nonpartisan governors’ association at a time of deep division among states over issues like abortion and gun control.
Murphy took the reins as president of the National Governors Association from outgoing boss Asa Hutchinson, the Republican governor of Arkansas. Murphy will be tasked with fostering bipartisanship among the organization’s members while some of them, like Democratic California Governor Gavin Newsom and Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, are publicly feuding with each other.
The states are also in the midst of an era of state-versus-state legal battles over abortion access. The association’s meeting was held in Maine, where Democratic Gov. Janet Mills signed an executive order barring state agencies from cooperating with out-of-state abortion investigations. Hutchinson signed a near total ban on abortion in her state.
Association members expressed a cooperative tone at the meeting, and Murphy encouraged members to prioritize working together.
“I don’t expect that over the course of the next year we’ll be taking our hats off as Democrats and Republicans,” Murphy said. “Remember we are partisans in third place, governors in second place, and Americans in first place.”
The National Governors Association also named a new vice president, Republican Utah Governor Spencer Cox. The previous vice president was Murphy. Cox also recognized the need for less partisan bickering.
“Sometimes we fight over something really stupid (expletive),” Cox said to applause from the crowd. “My point is that our ability to work together means much more than the things we fight for.”
The meeting was the first of its kind to be held in person since 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. The proper response to the pandemic is one of several issues that have divided governors over the past two years.
The gulf between Democratic and Republican states has recently been widened by US Supreme Court rulings that have overturned Roe v. Wade and lifted gun restrictions In New York. The agenda for this week’s governors’ meeting avoided those hot topics, focusing instead on issues like computer education and travel and tourism.
After the meeting ended, Murphy and Hutchinson agreed that some issues, such as abortion laws, will continue to polarize. But both said states can work together to serve the public interest on many other fronts.
“There’s going to be a list of things that we’re not going to find common ground on,” Murphy said. “That will never stop the NGA and its members from finding common ground on things we agree on.”
Hutchinson added that members must “do it in the right tone and remember what’s at stake” when confronting divisive issues.
The Governors Association was founded in 1908 and its members are the Governors of the 55 states, territories and commonwealths. This year’s meeting drew crowds of protesters to Portland. Many criticized the Roe v. Wade and the states that are moving to end or restrict access to abortion.
Organizers said 19 governors were confirmed to attend. DeSantis and Newsom were not among them.
Attendees included some who are well known in their states for working across the political spectrum, such as Massachusetts Republican Governor Charlie Baker and Vermont Republican Governor Phil Scott. Cox, the governor of Utah, has also signaled his willingness to work with Democrats on gun control, even though he would likely meet resistance in his own state.
Other high-profile governors not in attendance included Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Democratic New York Governor Kathy Hochul. Some with national profiles attended, including Republican Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland and Democratic Governor JB Pritzker of Illinois. Republican Governor Chris Sununu of neighboring New Hampshire was in attendance.
Mills, the governor of Maine, gave a keynote address at the event. It was the first time the state had hosted the summer meeting since 1983.
Mills is among a group of Democratic governors who have issued executive orders to protect abortion providers and patients. Governors of Colorado, Rhode and Island, and North Carolina have made similar moves.
At the same time, several red states imposed new restrictions in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling. Democratic North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, who attended the governor’s meeting, said his executive order sought to protect “North Carolina’s doctors and nurses and their patients from cruel right-wing criminal laws passed by other state”.