OLYMPIA – Dozens of the nation’s governors are converging on Seattle this weekend to chat about health care, munch hors d’oeuvres at Bill Gates’ home and catch a few hurled fish.
The annual meeting of the National Governors Association is drawing national politicians, millions of dollars in corporate donations – and thousands of protesters. Labor unions, Latino groups, students and welfare advocates are planning demonstrations outside the hotel towers where the private event is being held.
“We’re still deciding what we may be doing. There may well be civil disobedience,” said Stephanie Thomas, a national organizer for the Denver-based disability rights group ADAPT, which is bringing 500 people.
About 1,100 people will attend the governors meeting, including Homeland Security head Tom Ridge, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta. Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania, will conduct a strategy exercise involving bioterrorism. Gingrich and Panetta will speak about health care reforms. Much of this year’s meeting will focus on high-tech changes that help older people live in their own homes.
The governors of Washington and Idaho will both attend – Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, in fact, is the association’s chairman. But a spokeswoman for the group said Wednesday that it’s still unclear whether California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will make it. President Bush declined, and the group doesn’t invite presidential candidates, so John Kerry won’t be there, either. (His wife will be nearby, though. Teresa Heinz Kerry has campaign events scheduled in Seattle today and Friday.)
The annual governors meetings are bankrolled largely by corporations, via sponsorships of $2,000 to $150,000. This year’s dozens of sponsors include Boeing, Premera Blue Cross, Avista, Moneytree Inc., nursing home operator Beverly Enterprises, mortgage company Fannie Mae and lottery company GTECH Corp. All told, companies donated $2.2 million in cash and goods, said the NGA’s Elisabeth Wahlers.
“Really, the corporate community has stepped forward and embraced the conference,” she said.
The donations include briefcase backpacks from REI, chickens from the state Fryer Commission, phones from Nextel and salmon from Trident Seafoods. The governors will be chauffeured by state troopers driving 70 Suburban SUVs on loan from General Motors. Hewlett Packard loaned more than 60 computers and printers. And the Space Needle donated Space Noodles.
The corporate sponsorship irks some of the groups planning demonstrations this weekend.
“Unless you’ve got a $10,000 check, then you don’t get a seat at the table,” said Washington Citizen Action’s Kyle Tanner. “Perhaps there’s more corporate influence here than public influence.”
“The way that we raise money for these meetings is fairly standard,” said NGA spokeswoman Christine LaPaille. She said the sponsoring companies “have worked with governors and states for a long, long, long time.”
The meeting will bring about $2.5 million into the local economy, said Washington Gov. Gary Locke.
“It’s an opportunity for us to showcase our beautiful state,” he said.
That’s especially true for Puget Sound. Those attending the conference will drink Starbucks coffee, listen to jazz on the Emerald City’s waterfront, stroll through the Experience Music Project and ride boats to a reception at Bill and Melinda Gates’ Lake Washington home. Locke has even arranged a demonstration by the bellowing Pike Place Market fishmongers, who will lob seafood to Locke and the governors of Virginia and Arkansas.
Many groups also see the event as an opportunity: a chance to be heard by dozens of the nation’s key decision-makers.
“They (the governors) serve us, but it’s very rare that you get an opportunity to sit down with one of them,” said Tanner.
“We’re trying to appeal to the governors to do the right thing,” said Tim Welch, a spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees. Governors should pay state employees more, help children and the working poor, and scrutinize corporate tax breaks, he said. They should stop “outsourcing” public jobs to overseas workers and ensure that everyone has health care.
Between 1,000 and 2,000 demonstrators are expected at a Saturday march past the hotel, accompanied by the Infernal Noise Brigade marching band. Long-shot Democratic presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich will speak at a subsequent rally, as will Gerald McEntee, president of the AFSCME labor union.
“We’re setting up the march and rally so people have the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I’m your neighbor, I teach your kids, bag your groceries, mow your lawn, and I’m suffering,’ ” Tanner said.
An internal NGA memo obtained Wednesday by The Spokesman-Review estimated the number of protesters at 3,500 people. The memo warns that ADAPT members and other demonstrators may try to book rooms inside the hotel. It also says that a group of anarchists from Eugene, Ore., were trying to mobilize a group to protest Sunday.
“NGA will work to minimize the media coverage generated by the protests,” the memo reads.
“We do try to make sure that the media is covering our meeting,” LaPaille said, when asked about the memo. “That’s our job.”
Labor unions and some of the other large groups of demonstrators said that they’re determined not to let the protests turn into the sort of fracas seen in 1999 during the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. More than 500 people were arrested and more than $2.5 million worth of property was damaged.
“The attention of that event got taken away by people who crashed that party,” Welch said. “We are not going to allow groups that don’t share our intent and philosophy to come in and take away our event.”
Tanner said organizers will have hundreds of “peacekeepers” at the rally, with radios to report problems to organizers.
“Sometimes people get excited in the midst of these things,” he said. “We’ve taken every possible precaution and step to make sure it’s a fun, educational and peaceful event.”
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