California Gov. Gavin Newsom sought to rally a state worn down after a year of coronavirus lockdowns, record wildfires and unfathomable sickness and death, urging the nearly 40 million residents to “dream of brighter days ahead” while acknowledging his own 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 Tuesday night in his third State of the State address. “Even so, I acknowledge that it’s made life hard, it's made life unpredictable, and you’re exhausted by all of it.”
California governors normally make these annual speeches before a joint session of the Legislature in Sacramento and are interrupted frequently by cheers and applause from members of their party.
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But this year, with the coronavirus receding but still dangerous, Newsom delivered the speech from an empty Dodger Stadium. He stood behind a solitary lectern rising from a carpeted black podium in deep center field. There were no cheers to interrupt him, only the sound of a helicopter thumping overhead.
Newsom made no new major policy announcements. Instead, he focused mostly on actions he believes have positioned the state for a robust recovery and that blunt calls for him to be recalled.
He issued a warning to Republicans working to give voters a chance to remove him later this year, vowing that “the state of our state remains determined” and “I remain determined.”
“To the California critics out there who are promoting partisan political power grabs with outdated prejudices, rejecting everything that makes California truly great, we say this: We will not be distracted from getting shots in arms and our economy booming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 by many public health experts. While New York and other states saw cases surge last spring, California fared far better.
However, by the end of the year California was the epicenter for the virus, though recent weeks have seen cases and hospitalizations plummet and more of the state reopen businesses and resume youth sports and other activities.
The strict rules limiting which businesses could open led to the state losing 1.6 million jobs last year. The resulting crush of claims for unemployment benefits overwhelmed Newsom's administration, contributing to more than $11 billion in fraud, including an estimated $810 million in benefits paid in the names of prison inmates.
That scandal is referenced often by Newsom's critics but the most damaging blow to him during the pandemic came 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. That includes signinga $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 poised to approve.
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.
Newsom painted a rosy picture of the state's future, saying the state's vaccine program is “allowing you to visit your parents again, go to your daughter's basketball game, show up for shift work without fearing an infection.” He pledged to “make sure every Californian who needs a vaccine can get one," while prioritizing those at the greatest risk for exposure.
“We don’t just talk about vaccine equity — we’ve designed our entire system around it,” Newsom said, referencing his decision last week to set aside 40% of all vaccine doses for 400 ZIP codes with high populations of minorities and poor people, groups disproportionately harmed by the virus.
He also altered California's reopening plan for counties by tying relaxed restrictions to meeting vaccination thresholds for traditionally under-served populations.
Newsom sometimes is given to overstatements and he stretched the truth while referring to the state's vaccine program and its death rate during the pandemic.
He claimed the vaccination program is the “most robust" in the country and it is when measured by raw numbers.
California has given at least one dose to nearly 7.4 million adults, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s far beyond other large states — double the number in New York and about 3 million more than Texas — but ranks in the middle nationally by percentage of the adult population inoculated.
Newsom spoke while surrounded by 56,000 empty seats that represent roughly the number of Californians who have died from the coronavirus. That's the most in the country but Newsom called California's death rate “one of the lowest per capita in the nation” at 134 per 100,000 residents.
According to data from the CDC, California ranks 28th in deaths per capita among states.
Since the virus' peak in early January, 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 vaccination program.
“We place faith over fear, optimism over pessimism,” Newsom said. “This is our moment to create the California we all want to live in.”
Newsom made only passing reference to one of his signature issues — climate change — which he tied to the record wildfires that scorched 4% of all of California's land last year. He also touted an executive order he signed that seeks to ban the sale of new gas-powered cars in the state by 2035.
However, Greenpeace USA accused Newsom of continuing to “fuel climate catastrophe” by not phasing out environmentally harmful oil and gas drilling techniques.
This story has been corrected to show California ranks 28th in coronavirus deaths per capita among states, not 25th.
Beam reported from Sacramento. Associated Press reporters Kathleen Ronayne and Don Thompson contributed from Sacramento, California.