RI proves a draw with NGA expecting biggest-ever summer summit

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The National Governors Association’s leader says this week’s summit in Providence is shaping up to be its biggest-ever summer meeting, with more than 30 governors expected to attend and a head of state addressing the group for the first time.

“This summer meeting is over the top,” Scott Pattison, the NGA’s executive director and CEO, told Eyewitness News on Wednesday as governors began arriving and crews put the finishing touches on the Rhode Island Convention Center before the three-day event kicks off Thursday.

Gov. Gina Raimondo expects to welcome dozens of her counterparts, including Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, to Providence for the meeting – though one of the nation’s most famous governors, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, has canceled his plans to attend.

Rhode Island hasn’t hosted the NGA summer meeting since 2001. Pattison said the number of attendees expected this week has increased from 1,200 to 1,500, which would be “the largest participation ever.” He also said the number of governors who come to the summer meeting typically hovers around 25, so getting more than 30 is unusually high.

“I have to say, hat’s off to the attraction of Rhode Island,” Pattison said.

Economic development and the federal health care bill are expected to top the agenda for the governors, who will hear back-to-back speeches Friday from Vice-President Mike Pence and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. They’ll also hear from various other Trump administration officials, including Health Secretary Tom Price and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, and corporate leaders including Tesla CEO Elon Musk and CVS Health CEO Larry Merlo.

“This is a huge, big deal and very, very exciting for Providence and for Rhode Island,” Pattison said.

There was already a heavy security presence around the Convention Center on Wednesday morning, with Rhode Island State Police vehicles and K-9 units out in force and some street closures already in place.

Pattison insisted the meeting – one of two the NGA holds annually – isn’t just a summer vacation for the governors. “It’s kind of a misnomer that it’s a break for them,” he said. “It’s actually something in which governors are scheduled from breakfast till dinner every single day. They don’t have an extra moment.”

Still, it won’t be all work and no play for the governors – their schedule includes a number of social events including an evening event at the Providence Performing Arts Center and a private trip Saturday to Newport to visit mansions, enjoy a clambake and see fireworks.

Pattison said he thinks the glamour of the City by the Sea helped spur the high number of RSVPs from governors. “That was a real draw,” he said. “I wasn’t sure of it, but a lot of them said, ‘You know, I’ve heard about Newport my whole life, never been there.’ So you’re going to have a lot of governors stay just to go and see Newport.”

Politics will also be on the agenda, with private fundraisers being organized to raise money for the various governors’ campaign accounts while they’re in Providence. (A spokeswoman said Raimondo is not holding any fundraisers for her own campaign during the meeting.)

Russ Taub, a GOP activist and former Rhode Island congressional candidate, told Eyewitness News he is hosting fundraisers for Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker during the NGA meeting, though he declined to say where they’ll be held.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is headlining a free welcome event Thursday night hosted by Rhode Island Young Republicans at the Providence bar Ladder 133, as well.

A private nonprofit chaired by Jon Duffy, a public-relations executive and Raimondo confidante, has been raising money from a long list of corporate sponsors to underwrite the cost of holding the NGA meeting in Rhode Island. Volunteers who will be helping staff the event gathered Tuesday at the office of one of the sponsors, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, to receive a pep talk from Raimondo and her husband, First Gentleman Andy Moffit.

The position of NGA chair rotates each year between a Republican governor and a Democratic governor, and at this week’s meeting current chair Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic governor of Virginia, will be succeeded by Brian Sandoval, the Republican governor. Next in line is Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana.

A Rhode Island governor has not served as NGA chair since 1941, when Republican William Vanderbilt held the top job on the eve of World War II. If Raimondo hopes to break that streak, her only chance would come in 2021 – but first, of course, she would have to win re-election.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook