- Associated Press - Thursday, July 14, 2016

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - For a change, governors will get to see Iowa without campaigning for the White House.

Half the nation’s governors are expected in Des Moines for the summer meeting of the National Governors Association, which began Thursday and runs through the weekend. The states’ top executives are expected to discuss a range of policy challenges, including the opioid crisis, international trade, relations between law enforcement and minorities, and cybersecurity threats.

Still, presidential politics will be in the air as the two leading candidates get closer to choosing a running mate. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence had been expected to attend the meeting, but it was unclear whether he would as he emerged as one of the top candidates to be Donald Trump’s vice presidential pick.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who is scheduled to speak during the meeting Saturday, is not denying speculation that he is being considered by Hillary Clinton.

Iowa is best known politically for its first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, which draws scores of candidates every four years. This weekend’s gathering gives Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad a chance to showcase other aspects of the state, after he lobbied to host the meeting to coincide with his recent milestone of becoming the longest-serving governor in the nation’s history. Branstad was first elected in 1982 and, after a break from politics, is now in the middle of his sixth term.

Governors will get a lesson on the history of the caucuses, hear about how the state’s farmers help feed the world, and even have a taste of the famous Iowa State Fair. The Iowa theme will extend to speakers that include Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

Some of the expected attendees, such as Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, already are well-acquainted with the state from earlier presidential campaigns. For others, “this is an opportunity to enjoy Iowa hospitality and not have to run for president,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert joked Wednesday as he boarded a plane for the event.

Herbert, a Republican and the outgoing NGA chair, said governors will use the meeting to showcase programs that work in their states, which he says contrast with the dysfunction in Washington, D.C. He said governors also hope to lay the groundwork to have a “seat at the table” with whoever is the next president.

The governors have a weighty policy agenda to discuss. Governors met privately Thursday at Camp Dodge, home of the Iowa National Guard, where several federal leaders briefed them on military and homeland security initiatives.

Throughout the week, governors are expected to privately discuss the relationship between minorities and police following the fatal shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota and of five officers in Dallas by a sniper.

Governors face a difficult balancing act because they are in charge of state police forces yet face pressure to respond to constituents’ concerns about racial bias.

“I am sure they will be talking about the concerns, the tragedies, the violence, the importance of mutual respect,” NGA executive director Scott Pattison said.

On Friday, a bipartisan group of governors is expected to call for the passage of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade deal that has been widely criticized as bad for workers during the presidential campaign.

They will be joined by U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and representatives of industries who say the deal would open up markets for their products and create jobs. Governors from Japan also are expected to weigh in during a panel discussion.

Later Friday, the governors are expected to hear from experts about the epidemic in which dozens of Americans die daily from overdoses of pain relievers, heroin and other opioids. Nearly all of the governors signed a compact this week in which they committed to taking action to reduce the overprescribing of prescription drugs, raising awareness about the problem and promoting treatment for those already addicted.

On Saturday, the association will kick off a yearlong focus on cybersecurity designed to help states stop hackers and protect the sensitive personal information they maintain on citizens, from tax records to health records. That is an initiative promoted by the incoming NGA chairman, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia. He said his state has faced 53 million attempted cyberattacks already this year.

“You’ve got to protect your assets, and that is the goal of this,” McAuliffe said.

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