Above, watch the full conversation featuring Republican governors in conversation with Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson.
In what’s become an annual tradition, state leaders recently gathered in Aspen, CO, for the Republican Governors Association conference and spoke at a public event about the achievements of their states and some of the nation’s most pressing challenges.
Governors Doug Ducey of Arizona, Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, and Pat McCrory of North Carolina, addressed a sold-out audience as part of the McCloskey Speaker Series, on topics ranging from Donald Trump’s candidacy for president to immigration and criminal justice reform to the impact of the Charleston shooting in a historically black church.
Ducey, who took office this year, talked about how his background as CEO of the ice cream company Cold Stone Creamery prepared him for running a state.
“Setting a vision, charting a course, and picking the right team is not a whole lot different than what I had to do at Cold Stone Creamery,” he told the audience, adding that in his current role building a broad coalition and good communication are the two most important things.
Ducey also discussed his focus on K-12 education in Arizona by tapping additional resources to protect and increase schools funding and by sharing best practices among school districts. As a businessman, he’s also concerned with jobs and the economy, which includes embracing technology and the sharing economy, he said.
“I think technology is the next iteration of what is the most creative, innovative economy in the history of the world,” he said, adding that Arizona wants its regulations to encourage ride share companies like Uber and Lyft that will help reduce congestion and improve the state economy.
Like Ducey, the other governors praised technological advances and the sharing economy, emphasizing that the important thing is to train workers for changes brought on by technology.
Fallin, Oklahoma’s first female governor, discussed introducing performance-informed budgeting in her state, which involves looking at five specific areas to improve — health, education, safety, government accountability, and jobs and the economy — and requiring all state agencies working in those areas to adopt performance-driven goals and be able to measure outcomes.
Fallin said that Oklahoma has achieved a record-low unemployment rate of 4.3 percent and a rising average income by “focusing on the strongest, best-paying industries in the state and making sure we have the strongest, best-quality workforce.” That includes working with tech schools and principals to ensure people are being trained with the right skill sets for those jobs, she added.
In North Carolina, McCrory has been working on infrastructure for over 20 years, since implementing a 25-year transportation plan as mayor of Charlotte. The self-described Eisenhower Republican said that tackling his state’s and the country’s infrastructure problem is good business because it’s about “anticipating growth rather than reacting to it.” He proposed a $2.8 billion bond to invest in state roads and infrastructure over the next 25 years. Projects for funding must meet three main criteria related to congestion, safety issues, and areas where they can improve economic development.
Haley, the South Carolina governor who has been floated as a potential vice-presidential candidate, emotionally discussed the Charleston shooting and the lowering of the Confederate flag in her state, which Isaacson noted she handled with “skill and grace.”
When the Bible study group of the Emanuel AME Church welcomed Dylann Roof into their circle, they “accepted someone who didn’t look like them, who didn’t act like them; they accepted him and prayed with him for an hour,” Haley said.
“When [family members] were faced with the murders, they showed our state and the country what [it means] to forgive. That forgiveness was so overwhelming, that compassion hit a chord that we haven’t dealt with in a long time. So there weren’t protests; there were vigils. There weren’t arguments; there hugs. And all that compassion motivated people so much that there was action, and that’s why you saw the Confederate flag come down in South Carolina.”
Haley struck a lighter tone when she admittedly bragged about economic progress in South Carolina, sometimes at the expense of North Carolina, whose governor she repeatedly ribbed during the event. She discussed the success of her state’s welfare-to-work program and in-prison employment centers. Citing the location of companies such as Boeing, Mercedes Benz, Volvo, and several tire companies in her state, she said that whenever a company wants to come to South Carolina, she puts herself in the CEO’s position and helps them with what they need, whether it’s deterring unions, ensuring business-friendly regulations, and most importantly, making sure they have the right employees.
“I’ve found the No. 1 thing companies care about is they want a good, loyal, well-trained workforce,” she said, adding that South Carolina’s success rate in a training program for the specific needs of its business community has a 97 percent hire rate.
In terms of national issues, the governors criticized the Affordable Care Act while praising what they are doing in their states on health care. Fallin touted Oklahoma’s low uninsured rate as a result of her economic efforts to create good-paying jobs. Ducey, who called Obamacare “a rolling disaster and monumental failure,” said that he nevertheless wants Arizona to be in charge of federal Medicare/Medicaid dollars and ensure the programs roll out properly. “We’ll put our fingerprints on how we deal with that going forward,” he said.
All the governors agreed that mental health needed more support, and spoke of the common ground found between Democrats and Republicans on criminal justice issues.
“We have so much divisiveness between the political parties, when people just want problems solved, and this is one area we can find agreement upon,” said Fallin, who added that substance abuse funding has been boosted and a prescription drug-monitoring bill has been proposed under her watch.
Haley spoke of expanding mental health treatment to rural areas of South Carolina, and McCrory lamented that mental health issues have mostly been “swept under the rug,” partially because the media prefers headline-grabbing controversial issues, and political candidates are too immersed in campaigning.
“We have to run a state that’s appealing to everyone,” said McCrory. “But where legislators are more worried about their primary opponent than the general election, that has changed the dynamic of politics.”
The governors generally held firm on immigration, saying that the United States has to adhere to its laws. Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, said that her parents resent when people come to the country illegally, although “we need to remember that tone and communication matters, and people matter.”
Only when the talk turned to the 2016 presidential election, and Donald Trump’s candidacy, was there some debate.
Noting that the deep field of Republican candidates would ensure “a lot of ideas, a lot of debate,” Fallin suggested that the American people want someone for president who has a vision, a plan, and can show that he or she cares about what they care about. She cited the saying, “People don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.”
McCrory predicts the Republican nominee will be a current or former governor, “because that’s been lacking for the last eight years. We don’t have someone with executive leadership, who can put a team together, and I think that’s a skill set we need, along with private sector experience.”
McCrory defended Trump’s ability to say controversial things as a freedom of speech issue, and suggested that the idea of boycotting businesses, such as Trump hotels, “opens a whole another window and it’s not where we need to go.”
Haley, who called most of the 17 potential Republican candidates “fantastic,” disagreed with McCrory on Trump’s recent outbursts. “That’s wrong,” she said, adding that she was disappointed in Trump, whom she calls a personal friend, “because he has attacked everybody personally. That’s not what I’m looking for in a president; I’m looking for someone that brings people together.”
Haley suggested a list of what a good candidate should have: “I want to see how they handle a debate. I want action; I want results. I want a fighter, but I don’t want one who fights each other. I want one that’s going to fight for the people.”