With a tradition-busting speech meant to mark the tragedies of the last year while inspiring hope for the future, Gov. Gavin Newsom also worked Tuesday night to shore up support from the Californians who can keep him from being thrown out of office.
Mothers. Nurses. Teachers.
They all got shout-outs from Newsom as he delivered the annual State of the State speech from Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, hundreds of miles and a world away from the event's usual digs at the Capitol in Sacramento. Instead of standing in the chandeliered Assembly chamber before an audience of applauding lawmakers, Newsom stood beneath dusky skies on a lush green field evoking the rebirth of spring, and looked out at an almost empty stadium symbolizing the Californians killed by COVID-19.
Instead of talking to the Legislature about an ambitious policy agenda for the coming year, as he did last year on homelessness, Newsom spoke directly to Californians whose lives have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic.
"COVID was no one's fault — but it quickly became everyone's burden," Newsom said.
"Forcing hard-working Californians into impossible choices — go to work and risk infection, or stay home and lose your job. It magnified daily worries about feeding your kids, paying rent and keeping loved ones safe."
For Newsom, the burden of the pandemic is largely political. Republicans who tried unsuccessfully to recall him five times hit the jackpot with their sixth try, when a judge gave them more time to collect signatures because of Newsom's stay-at-home order. The signature-gathering drive gained steam as many Californians grew restless and angry from ongoing school and business shutdowns, while Newsom celebrated a lobbyist's birthday at the posh French Laundry restaurant.
If recall supporters submit 1.5 million valid signatures by next week — which appears likely — Newsom will become just the second California governor to face a recall election. Though California voters are overwhelmingly Democratic, the rules of a recall election make it possible for a Republican to win, even without a majority of votes.
"California needs a new and better way forward," Republican Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego, said in a video address Tuesday, part of his campaign to challenge Newsom in the recall. "We have an opportunity to reject the failures of one-party-rule, and choose a new direction for our state."
Newsom conceded that the state's pandemic response had not always been smooth. "I know our progress hasn't always felt fast enough," he said. "And look, we've made mistakes. I've made mistakes. But we own them, learn from them, and never stop trying."
But he gave a lengthy list of the actions that California has taken, which he argued have put the state at the nation's forefront.
Politics formed the backdrop for the governor's unusual speech, in which he memorialized the 54,395 Californians who have died from COVID-19, while trying to instill optimism about a vaccinated future.
"When this pandemic ends — and it will end soon — we're not going back to normal. Normal was never good enough," he said. "Normal accepts inequity."
By addressing parents, teachers and workers, Newsom signaled that the speech was also meant to build support among the core Democratic constituencies who can help him beat back the recall.
"He needs to shore up support not just from individual voters, but from those that work with those voters — those who go out and mobilize," said Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California.
A recall election will automatically generate excitement among Republicans eager to throw Newsom out of office, Romero said. Newsom's challenge will be getting his own supporters equally enthusiastic about voting to keep him.
"You need those Democratic voters to come out, and the groups that mobilize those voters really matter," she said.
That means building support with labor unions, corporations and progressive advocacy groups, as well as blocs of loyal Democratic voters, such as Latinos, African Americans and women.
Newsom acknowledged mothers "who've juggled and struggled" to care for children, keep their jobs and feed their families amid a pandemic that has had a disproportionate financial impact on women and driven many from the workforce.
He spoke of Latinos "dying from COVID at a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group" — and touted his latest reopening plan that sets 40% of vaccines aside for low-income communities that have been hit hardest by the pandemic.
"Vaccine equity is not just the right thing to do, it is also the fastest way through the pandemic," Newsom said. "Grocery workers prioritized. School staff prioritized. And farmworkers, put to the front of the line."
He praised the heroism of nurses and health care workers who "despite the chaos and risks to themselves, paused to hold the hands of strangers in their final moments."
Health care worker unions played a big role in Newsom's 2018 election, and one has already launched a digital advertising campaign against the recall.
And even though Newsom and the powerful teachers union that backed him in 2018 have sparred recently over reopening schools, Newsom used his speech to highlight the work of teachers who are "pulling triple duty as counselors, curriculum developers, and tech specialists."
While never directly addressing the looming recall campaign, Newsom came closer than he ever has, lobbing an aggressive attack at "naysayers and dooms-dayers."
"To the California critics out there who are promoting partisan political power grabs with outdated prejudices, and 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. This is a fight for California's future."
At that, the screens next to Newsom's podium showed a grid of Democratic mayors, legislators and other elected officials — hands up in applause. "The governor made an absolutely good case today about why a recall is absolutely an irresponsible thing to be considering right now," Democratic state Senate leader Toni Atkins later told reporters.
California GOP chairperson Jessica Millan Patterson shot back in a statement defending the party's work to recall him: "No Gavin, these are not a few naysayers with outdated prejudices. They are hard-working Californians who are fighting to take our state back."
When the half-hour, quickly delivered speech ended, Newsom walked off the stage to Wilco's version of "California Stars" — the same song featured in his 2018 election commercials. It was yet another sign that this unusual State of the State speech was also the kickoff to his don't-recall-me campaign.