WILLIAMSBURG — Arriving in shiny, black sport-utility vehicles and packed with wired-in entourages, the nation’s governors descended on this tiny historic city where Colonial reenactors and candlemakers still dot the streets.
The National Governors Association on Friday kicked off the first of a two-day summer meeting in one of the nation’s oldest communities with more than 1,000 people — governors, staff members, reporters and sponsors — milling around the Colonial capital.
Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) lobbied to host the meeting, which showcases his state and offers him a national platform, a few months before November’s election. In recent years, the city has attracted Queen Elizabeth II and President Obama.
“To walk in the footsteps of the founders is something that I hope will be a great source of inspiration . . . to all the governors,” McDonnell said at an opening news conference.
States must set up exchanges for residents to purchase insurance and decide whether to opt out of Medicaid expansion. Six Republican governors have already done so, but McDonnell remains noncommittal.
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D), who serves as NGA vice chairman, said governors have “fundamentally different approaches” on health care.
“What we do is spend a lot of time looking at the math, and we also understand that there is a significant cost to doing nothing,’’ he said.
The gathering brought some high-profile political figures to Virginia — a battleground state in this year’s elections. As governors of both parties bemoaned the partisan gridlock in Washington, Obama rallied supporters an hour away in Virginia Beach, the first of five stops in the state this weekend.
“Whether the president planned to upstage the governors, you’ll have to ask him,” McDonnell told reporters.
More than half the nation’s governors attended, including Chris Christie (R-N.J.), Scott Walker (R-Wis.) and Beverly Perdue (D-N.C.). Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) was stumping for GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney in Nevada.
“The people of my state expect me to get things done,” said Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R), who serves as NGA chairman. “The biggest frustration I have with the federal government is they never make a decision. They never act.”
McDonnell, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, are both holding fundraisers this weekend. The two attended a dinner Thursday night ahead of the meeting, which is being held in Virginia for the fourth time.
O’Malley also led an off-site news conference Friday during which he and other Democratic governors touted their progress on jobs and other issues while knocking Republican policies.
O’Malley lauded Maryland for its role as an “early implementer” of the health-care law and was critical of Republican governors who have decided not to take federal money associated with the program.
“It’s hard to help somebody who doesn’t want to be helped,” he said.
McDonnell’s staff spent more than a year raising more than $1 million for the event, which drew more than two dozen protesters Friday. Sponsors, including Northrop Grumman, Proctor and Gamble, and Johnson and Johnson, kicked in more than $5,000. Dominion Virginia Power and Altria, the parent company of Virginia-based cigarette maker Philip Morris, contributed $100,000.
About $150,000 worth of in-kind services were donated from businesses, including Smithfield Foods, the Virginia Seafood Council and Barboursville Vineyards.
Panel discussions were open to the media, but social activities and some meetings were open only to sponsors.
On Thursday night, governors were treated to a barbecue dinner at Busch Gardens theme park. On Friday, they went to the Jamestown settlement to sample a seafood buffet. On Saturday, they will enjoy a dinner inside a tent at the old governor’s palace. Impersonators of the state’s first two governors, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, will be on hand.
The administration hopes to reap $2.16 million in economic impact from the meetings.
John Wagner contributed to this report.