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White House vows to strengthen ties with Dem govs

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WASHINGTON — The White House on Wednesday pledged to work more closely with the nation's Democratic governors after a tumultuous election year marked by a strained relationship.

President Barack Obama's interim chief of staff, Pete Rouse, assured current and incoming Democratic chief executives in an hour-long private meeting that the White House will step up its communication with governors, and he invited them to call him anytime.

They welcomed the change.

That's according to a Democratic official who attended the Democratic Governors Association meeting and spoke on the condition of anonymity because the session was closed to the public.

Rouse, according to the official, said that several of Obama's significant accomplishments were made possible because of the help of governors, including money for jointly funded state-federal social services programs. But, the official said, Rouse also acknowledged that the White House didn't effectively communicate and interact with governors, calling those instances missed opportunities. He promised to fix that going forward.

In turn, the official said that several Democratic governors acknowledged the past tension and welcomed the White House's commitment to improving the relationship. They also called Obama's White House the most responsive they had ever dealt with and called the visit by a White House chief of staff a historic first.

"We're always looking for more and better coordination and collaboration," Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, the new DGA chairman, said before the meeting with Rouse. Still, he added: "Were it not for the actions of the president and the Democratic-controlled Congress on the economy, statehouses would be in shambles right now."

On Capitol Hill, incoming House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., were meeting with more than a half dozen newly elected Republican governors, in hopes of working together on proposals for cutting spending, creating jobs and repealing Obama's health care law.

Three of the newly elected governors told reporters they would stand up to Washington on issues such as President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.

"Let our people go," said John Kasich of Ohio, a former member of the House. "Washington will not let our people go."

Mary Fallin of Oklahoma promised to focus on jobs, the economy and fiscal responsibility. Niki Haley of South Carolina railed against unfunded mandates.

In both parties, leaders in Washington were looking to strengthen ties with their state counterparts as they seek to both plot strategy and show the public that they are listening after an election that highlighted the public's disgust with the capital.

Obama was hosting newly elected Republican and Democratic governors at the White House on Thursday.

Throughout the 2010 campaign cycle, there was little collaboration between the White House and Democratic governors on fundraising, policy and political matters. In July, tensions flared in Boston when Democratic governors met privately with White House officials to express grave concerns about immigration policy and the Obama administration's lawsuit against Arizona's tough new law.

During the year, the president's direct campaign involvement was mostly limited to three presidential swing states that will be important to his re-election chances — Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin — as well as states where key allies were running, like Massachusetts where Obama-friend Gov. Deval Patrick was in a tough re-election fight. He ultimately won.

And in the days before the election, Obama agitated Democratic governors when he traveled to Rhode Island but refused to endorse Democratic nominee Frank Caprio in the state's three-way governor's race to replace the outgoing Republican governor. Independent Lincoln Chafee won.

Still, Nathan Daschle, the DGA's executive director, praised the White House for being "the most responsive administration ever to Democratic governors" and said: "No one believes more strongly in President Obama than Democratic governors, and they're determined to help him succeed in the next two years and move this country forward."

Despite a political environment that favored the GOP, Democrats won more governors' races than political handicappers expected. That included winning in five states Republicans currently control, as long as Democrat Mark Dayton wins a recount in Minnesota, and re-electing five of seven Democratic incumbents.