Gov. Gavin Newsom used an evening State of the State speech to empathize with pandemic victims and tout California’s progress in defeating the coronavirus, sounding out a message that could resonate with voters in a potential recall election.
The Democratic governor gave his third version of the annual address at his most vulnerable point since taking office in 2019, with recall proponents harnessing voter frustration over year-long pandemic closures. While Newsom did not mention the recall campaign directly, he alluded to it by condemning “partisan political power grabs” — the first time he has publicly referenced the impending challenge.
In a break from tradition that highlighted how the pandemic has consumed California politics, the Democratic governor spoke from an empty Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles rather than addressing lawmakers at the state Capitol in Sacramento. Newsom also returned the statewide address to the evening, seizing an opportunity to make his case to a larger slice of an electorate largely judging the governor’s performance through the lens of the pandemic.
“Even as we grieve, let’s allow ourselves to dream of brighter days ahead,” Newsom said, heralding an approaching time when listeners could “visit your parents again, go to your daughter’s basketball game, show up for shift work without fearing infection.”
Unlike Newsom’s first two State of the State speeches, the Tuesday evening address contained few policy proposals. Instead, the governor conveyed a message of shared sacrifice tempered by hope for the months ahead. He honored frontline workers and victims while arguing California would rebound by aiding the “millions of Californians pushed out of the workforce and essential workers with no choice but to keep showing up.”
In another first, the governor accompanied his State of the State address with pictures of front-line workers and video of state efforts combating the pandemic. Legislators appeared on a virtual meeting split-screen.
“Covid was no one’s fault, but it quickly became everyone’s burden,” Newsom said, noting later that “in 2020, we simultaneously faced two once-in-a-generation crises when we combated the worst wildfire season in our state’s history in the middle of the pandemic.”
Newsom’s political fortunes have tracked the virus’ trajectory over the last year. Early praise for his aggressive moves to contain its spread turned into frustration as schools remained closed and many Californians chafed under fluctuating restrictions. Those dynamics have propelled an effort to recall Newsom to the brink of qualifying for the ballot. Proponents said Sunday that they have collected nearly 2 million signatures, which they believe is more than enough to clear the 1.5 million valid signature requirement.
On Tuesday, he offered some flashes off humility as he acknowledged falling short at times, saying “our progress hasn’t always felt fast enough” and “I’ve made mistakes.” He conceded that his restrictions have burdened residents.
“People are alive today because of the public health decisions we made — lives saved because of your sacrifice,” Newsom said. “Even so, I acknowledge it’s made life hard and unpredictable, and you’re exhausted with all of it.”
But the state’s picture is improving rapidly. Hospitalizations and viral transmissions have dropped sharply after nearly two months of stay-at-home orders and as more Californians get vaccinated. The Newsom administration has broadened the path for counties to reopen schools and businesses. Last week, California announced a timeline for residents to return in person to outdoor sporting events, concerts and theme parks.
Newsom has touted California’s progress in stops at vaccination sites around the state in recent weeks. While the governor studiously avoids commenting on the recall, the press conferences can have the feel of campaign events even as allies praise Newsom’s stewardship. Newsom referenced that statewide tour on Tuesday night, and his address lent a similar opportunity to highlight declining infections and a raft of state assistance programs.
He made the case for his initial response as the virus arrived last March, arguing California had outdone other states in early actions to contain the virus. He said that success has continued, pointing to “the most robust vaccination program in America” to say “we lead on combating Covid.” And he looked forward, saying schools are on the verge of reopening and highlighting the various financial lifelines California has extended to struggling individuals and small businesses that have been convulsed by repeated shutdowns.
“We are providing certainty,” Newsom said. “Certainty that we are safely vaccinating Californians as quickly as possible. Certainty that we are safely reopening our economy. Certainty that we are safely getting our kids back in classrooms. All of which adds up to a brighter future for our state.”
The Democratic governor has the benefit this year of record California state budget revenues on top of potential tens of billions of dollars from the new federal stimulus package. All of that money will position Newsom to provide additional relief and cash to residents — some of which he and state lawmakers have already approved in the form of $600 grants for low-income workers and residents on state assistance programs.
But Newsom will continue to face criticism for an unemployment benefit system embarrassed by a string of fraudulent payments, as well as a sense from parents that he still hasn’t done enough to get schoolchildren back into classrooms.
In a reminder of the speech’s political stakes, both of the Republicans running to replace Newsom responded by lambasting the governor. Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said Newsom had cleared “the high bar for a recall,” emphasizing issues like shuttered schools, unemployment benefit lapses and homelessness.
“This crisis exceeds the current governor’s ability to deal with it,” Faulconer said. “California needs a comeback, but the only comeback Gavin Newsom is focused on is his own. He will say anything to save his political career.”
Republican businessperson John Cox, who lost overwhelmingly to Newsom in 2018, said in a statement that Newsom’s shortcomings did not begin with the pandemic. “Gavin Newsom wasn’t getting it done prior to the pandemic, his response was an epic failure as schools and businesses remain closed longer than any other state, and now he hasn’t adjusted his vision for a California comeback,” Cox said.