The state of the state in January, when California governors normally make speeches on that theme, was dreadful. A hard lockdown was in place as about 40,000 Californians were getting sick with COVID-19 each day. Businesses closed. Hospitals filled. Evictions loomed. And California was among the slowest states in the nation to deploy vaccines that should help end the devastating pandemic.
Little wonder that Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom delayed delivering a “State of the State” speech, in which governors typically tout their accomplishments of the past year and announce an agenda for the year ahead.
Now, though, Newsom is preparing to deliver the speech tonight (Tuesday, March 9)— a sign he believes the worst of the pandemic has passed, and that he’s turning his attention toward the political campaign to keep his job.
This is the first time a California governor has delivered a State of the State speech in March, and Newsom has planned the event to draw extra attention. By making the speech at 6 p.m. from Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, he’ll likely attract more media coverage than it garners when held midmorning in Sacramento, as has been customary in recent years.
The unusual timing also allows Newsom to highlight his accomplishments at the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, and just a week before his opponents must submit signatures to force a special election to recall him from office.
“It can be the beginning of Gavin Newsom’s comeback,” said Democratic political consultant Roger Salazar. “But that said, there is always the danger of declaring ‘Mission Accomplished’ too early.”
Daily COVID-19 infections in California have dropped by 90% from their peak in January. The state is distributing vaccines at about the average national rate. And with 10.5 million vaccine doses administered in California, Newsom has announced plans to speed up business reopenings and allow limited numbers of people back to amusement parks and professional baseball games.
It all feels perfectly teed up for the speech at Dodger Stadium, where Newsom can tap into the sense of hope many Americans feel at the start of baseball season. The location was chosen to represent the resilience of the championship team, as well as the dedication of health care workers who have been vaccinating Californians at the stadium, according to Newsom spokesperson Sahar Robertson. She said the empty stands will signify the more than 54,000 Californians who have died from the disease.
It’s the latest, most highly orchestrated stop in Newsom’s recent tour of vaccination sites at stadiums and community centers around the state.
“We’ve seen for the last several weeks that he’s moved into campaign mode as far as using the power of his office,” said Dave Gilliard, a Republican consultant working on the recall campaign.
“He’s going to do everything he can to spin the State of the State into something that’s positive.”
Under Newsom’s new reopening plan, 40% of the state’s vaccines are set aside for low-income communities that have been hit hard by the virus. After 2 million vaccines have been administered, counties can more easily move from the most-restrictive purple tier to the less-restrictive red tier. So far, 18 counties have moved out of the purple tier and more could do so as early as today.
The governor’s latest strategy has drawn a mixed response from local officials.
Supervisors Luis Alejo of Monterey County and James Gore of Sonoma County said they welcomed the new vaccine distribution and reopening rules.
“This announcement is clear to us,” said Gore, president of the California State Association of Counties. “Our community wants to open up, but open up safely.”
But Jeff Smith, a doctor who is also the executive officer of Santa Clara County, said Newsom’s approach is “purely politics.”
“He’s trying to figure out how to avoid getting recalled,” Smith said.
“So he’s trying to pretend like he’s doing something on equity to score political points, while trying to encourage reopening to make his other friends happy.”
Political balancing act
Such political balancing acts have become a hallmark of Newsom’s approach to navigating the pandemic. It was obvious in the way he persuaded lawmakers to move quickly on the priorities he set early this year, allowing him — in less than two months — to sign legislation sending out almost $17 billion, largely with bipartisan support. A $2.6 billion deal to extend a moratorium on evictions tried to balance demands from landlords and tenants. A $7.6 billion economic stimulus package gave grants to small businesses and low-income workers (including those who are undocumented). A $6.6 billion deal to reopen schools was designed to encourage districts to get kids back in the classroom, without usurping local control.
“There is no valedictory opportunity here. He is still in a spot where he needs to convince the public that he is working on the problems they care about,” said Joe Rodota, a political consultant who worked for Republican former governors Govs. Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“Time will tell if the proposals recently adopted will achieve the intended results. The track record has been uneven at best.”
The federal stimulus package President Joe Biden is expected to sign this week will probably help Newsom in the coming months. It will provide an additional $42 billion to California’s state and local governments, plus money meant to help reopen schools, assist struggling homeowners and renters and improve vaccine distribution.
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.