Facing an almost certain recall and harsh criticism over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and vaccination rollout, California Gov. Gavin Newsom was in full campaign mode tonight in his third annual State of the State speech.
“The state of our state remains determined,” the former San Francisco mayor said from a near-empty Dodger Stadium on Tuesday. “I remain determined!”
“We won’t change course just because of a few naysayers and dooms-dayers,” the governor added in a clear jab at political rivals like former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.
“So to the California critics, who are promoting partisan power grabs and outdated prejudices and rejecting everything that makes California great, we say this: We will not be distracted from getting shots in arms and our economy booming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,” the often-rushed and off-kilter Newsom declared in what likely will be one of his stump-speech applause lines once the looming recall kicks in and a special election is underway.
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Fully aware that this is one of the most pivotal speeches of his shining career, the usually unruffled Newsom reiterated his mantra that “science, not politics, drives our decisions.” But, coming off three weeks in which Newsom barnstormed the state receiving plaudits from local officials while trying to boost the credibility of his Covid-19 record, many Californians may question the governor’s sudden decision to reopen the state and its schools more quickly.
“This is a fight for California’s future,” the first-term governor stated in tonight’s carefully orchestrated and visually enhanced laundry-list address. It is a winning line that already has been kneecapped as Republicans taste blood in what could be their first return to the state’s top office in over 15 years.
“California needs a comeback, but the only comeback Gavin Newsom is focused on is his own,” Faulconer proclaimed in the response speech he put up online even before Newsom stepped in front of the cameras
Symbolically held at the home of L.A’s World Series-winning MLB team with its 55,000 capacity — which is just slightly more than the number of Californians who have died from Covid-19 — the speech saw Newsom on the back foot from the beginning. And not just because he began 16 minutes later than the original 6 PM start and occasionally was drowned out by overhead helicopters.
For one thing, even as coronavirus cases and deaths are falling in California, the stops and starts of lockdown, the battered economy and closed schools have left many in the Golden State exhausted, broke and frustrated. Along with incidents like Newsom’s disastrous visit last fall to the pricey French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley, the governor has lost much of his luster as the vaccination rollout in California stumbled in the opening weeks of the year.
Removed from the traditional confines of the state Legislature in Sacramento, tonight’s State of the State speech was a full-on television production.
Along with giant video screens flanking the governor, there were multiple camera angles and additional footage of the Hollywood sign. Jacking up the visual value, the control room of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and footage of the pandemic’s “quiet heroes” — frontline health care workers — were part of the show too. In fact, at the end of the nearly 30-minute speech, Newsom waved to onlookers on the monitors adorning the baseball diamond.
In the late innings of the pandemic, Newsom never explicitly mentioned the recall effort on Tuesday. Yet, in the fight of his charmed political life and with nearly 2 million signatures collected for that recall, Newsom looks to follow fellow Democrat Gray Davis into the relatively uncharted electoral territory. Perceived in some circles as a potential rival to George W. Bush in 2004, then-Gov. Davis was crippled by California’s energy crisis in 2003 and got recalled by voters; Arnold Schwarzenegger won the special election that fall.
As for the speech itself, Newsom’s critics might not agree with all his pandemic policy statements, characterizations and bragging points.
“While others competed to buy personal protective equipment at exorbitant prices, we quickly built our own pipeline, supplying critical gear to millions of essential workers,” he said Tuesday. But the governor has been roundly criticized for two deals with a Chinese manufacturer, BYD, worth nearly $1.5 billion.
He also touted “a first-in-the-nation state-run testing lab. That lab was unique and, at $120 million, a big bet for Newsom. But it was recently revealed that the Valencia facility’s launch has been marred by an unexpectedly high number of inconclusive test results.
Nevertheless, “We are providing certainty,” said Newsom. “Certainty that we are safely vaccinating Californians as quickly as possible.”
Tell that to local health officials who were promised by President Joe Biden on his second day in office that they would have a predictable three-week window on how many doses they would be getting. By Newsom’s own admission, he is receiving those three-week projections. But local health officers across the state, as of last week, were still only getting a one-week view, if that.
Still, one thing Newsom does deserve credit for, which he rightly pointed out this evening in his speech, is the prioritization of vaccine equity — setting aside 40% of the state’s supply for underserved communities.
With all that, Newsom is still well positioned to win the recall special election if it happens. It won’t be in the landslide that saw Newsom succeed Jerry Brown in 2018, but lacking a superstar candidate like the Terminator, the state GOP is divided — and politicians usually win not because of their own merits, but their enemies’ shortcomings.
You can watch Newsom’s State of the State address below.
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