PHILADELPHIA - Former president Bill Clinton kicked off the centennial gathering of the National Governors Association here yesterday with a challenge to states to reassert themselves to help the country combat what he called profound challenges of globalization and inter-dependency.
Returning to an organization that helped send him to the White House, Clinton urged states once again to become incubators for experimentation and innovation to reduce income inequality, resolve growing tensions over immigration, and confront the threat of global climate change.
"The Founders were right," he said. "You have to be laboratories of democracy. The [National Governors Association] gives the governors a forum to do that. We have to deal with inequality. We have to deal with identity. We have to deal with energy. If we do we're about to go into the most exciting period in human history. If we don't, in the words of President [Theodore] Roosevelt, dark will be the future. I'm betting on light."
It was Roosevelt who convened the first gathering of the nation's governors in 1908, and this weekend's celebration brought together more than 50 current and former state executives for what turned into a lively debate on issues including education, healthcare, and whether term limits have weakened state legislatures.
Clinton, appearing in his capacity as head of his global foundation, made only passing references to the presidential campaign.
The former president rose through the gubernatorial ranks in the 1980s as an energetic policy activist prepared to talk about issues and solutions, no matter how large or small. "I used to tell people I loved going to the governors association," he said, "because it was the 'center of wonkdom.' "
Clinton used the example of his foundation to urge governors to take concrete actions to deal with such problems as the exorbitant fees lower-income people without bank accounts have to pay to cash paychecks.
But he also called on the governors to use their collective power, and their spirit of bipartisanship, to help Washington rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act, which he said has helped the lowest-performing schools, but at a cost of harming the performance of schools that traditionally have done a better job.
Among notable former governors in attendance were Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts, George Voinovich of Ohio, and John Engler of Michigan.