PROVIDENCE — Lately Providence might be known as Crimetown, thanks to a popular podcast about Rhode Island’s largest city. But for two days it could also be called the center of the political universe.
With Washington mired in news of the Russia investigations and lawmakers stalled on the new health care bill, more than half the nation’s governors, along with Vice President Mike Pence and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, are all gathered for a semiannual conference in the country’s smallest state.
Trudeau’s appearance at the event was the first ever from a foreign head of state. His speech came weeks before the North American Free Trade Agreement members will begin renegotiations, and he spent the bulk of it discussing the trade relationship.
The 2017 National Governors Association conference at the Providence Convention Center this weekend has drawn the greatest number of governors ever — 32 — to attend the summer meeting. For the first time, it has sold out, according to Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who chairs the group. Every governor in New England is attending, except for Maine Governor Paul LePage. In all, 1,800 people registered for the event, which started Thursday and runs through Saturday night.
The highlight comes Friday afternoon, with back-to-back speeches from Pence and Trudeau, where the Canadian head of state is expected to discuss trade. Later in the day, former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer should be addressing the crowd. On Saturday, entrepreneur Elon Musk will have his turn.
Traditionally, the gathering of governors allows the leaders to discuss issues facing each state, in a nonpartisan setting. But it’s never totally without politicking. One frequent subplot of the annual gathering: There’s always some level of jockeying from governors plotting a future presidential run. This time, however, with just 13 Democratic governors across the country, we’re seeing a lot fewer of those 2020 ambitions on display.
Indeed, the most buzzed about meeting (and it will take place behind closed doors) is the one between Pence and Nevada Republican Governor Brian Sandoval, which will be about the Senate’s latest health care bill. There are a handful of Republicans on the fence about the bill, including fellow Nevada politician Senator Dean Heller.
Heller said he opposed the first Senate version because Sandoval had concerns about the effect on their state. If Heller announces he is against the bill, then it is logistically dead. So convincing the governor is a critical move for the Trump administration.
As improbable as it sounds, that means the most important political meeting of the week is taking place not in an ornate room in Washington, but in a nondescript convention hall next to the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence.