Addressing a state exhausted after a year of lockdowns, wildfires, disease and death, California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday urged residents of the nation's most populous state to “dream of brighter days ahead” while acknowledging mistakes that have put his political future on the line.
“People are alive today because of the public health decisions we made — lives saved because of your sacrifice,” Newsom said in his third State of the State address. “Even so, I acknowledge it’s made life hard and unpredictable, and you’re exhausted with all of it.”
The speech normally is presented to a joint session of the Legislature in Sacramento. This year, Newsom delivered it from center field in an empty Dodger Stadium, which has served as a coronavirus testing and vaccination center.
He made no new major policy announcements, instead focusing the majority of his roughly 30-minute speech on actions that he believes will position the state for a robust recovery. He also issued a subtle warning to Republican critics aiming to take him out in a recall election later this year, vowing that “the state of our state remains determined” and “I remain determined.”
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“To the California critics, who are promoting partisan power grabs and outdated prejudices, and rejecting everything that makes California great, we say this: We will not be distracted from getting shots in arms and our economy booming again,” he said.
Newsom was the first governor to impose a statewide stay-at-home order last year, a move that was praised at the time by many public health experts. But the state's strict rules limiting which businesses could open and discouraging school districts from having in-person learning frustrated many in the state.
Newsom fanned those flames last fall when he attended a private dinner with lobbyists at a fancy restaurant and was photographed without a mask. The gathering didn't technically violate the state's rules at the time but was contrary to his constant message for state residents to stay home and wear face coverings around others.
Newsom apologized after the outing was reported in the media. He made no direct reference to the incident Tuesday but acknowledged: “I have made mistakes. But we own them, learn from them, and we never stop trying."
Kevin Faulconer, a Republican and former San Diego mayor who is running for governor, said Newsom “will say anything to save his political career.”
“Gavin Newsom has had almost unlimited emergency powers for a year. For months, we gave him the benefit of the doubt. But time and time again, he has completely failed on delivering the basics," Faulconer said in a videoreleased just ahead of Newsom's speech.
Newsom highlighted what he and the Democratic-controlled state Legislature have done to address the economic fallout from the pandemic. That includes signing a $7.6 billion stimulus package that will send $600 payments to many low-to moderate-income Californians on top of the $1,400 relief checks Congress is likely to approve soon.
He also highlighted a recent $6.6 billion spending package aimed at enticing public school districts to get students back into classrooms by month’s end. But districts must meet strict requirements to get their full share of the spending, and it’s unclear how many will be able to do that by March 31.
“We won't be satisfied until everybody is back in school,” Newsom said.
The backdrop for Newsom's speech was 56,000 empty seats that represent roughly the number of Californians who have died from the coronavirus, the most in the country.
Newsom called California’s death rate “one of the lowest per capita in the nation” at 134 per 100,000 residents. But according to data from the Centers for Disease Control, California ranks 25th in deaths per capita among states.
Since the virus' peak in early January, California's coronavirus-related hospitalizations are down 80% while the number of new cases reported per day has dropped to about 2,600 from a high of 53,000. Newsom credited his public health orders and what he called "the most robust vaccination program in America.
“Since the pandemic started, uncertainty has been the only thing we could be certain of,” Newsom said. “But now, we are providing certainty. Certainty that we are safely vaccinating Californians as quickly as possible.”
Even so, many counties have expressed concern in Newsom's plan to centralize the state's vaccine delivery system. Santa Clara County, the largest county in the San Francisco Bay Area, says it won't participate in it.
Associated Press reporters Kathleen Ronayne and Don Thompson contributed from Sacramento, California.