Embattled California governor says ‘brighter days ahead’

LOS ANGELES (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom sought to rally his state worn down after a year of coronavirus lockdowns, record wildfires and unfathomable sickness and death. He urged California’s nearly 40 million residents 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 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.

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, only the sound of a helicopter thumping overhead.

Newsom made no new major policy announcements, instead focusing 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 and vowed: “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“To the California critics out there who are promoting partisan political power grabs with outdated prejudices, rejecting everything that makes California truly great, we say this: We will not be distracted from getting shots in arms and our economy booming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 praised by many public health experts. When cases in New York elsewhere surged last spring, California fared better.

California by the end of the year was the epicenter for the virus, though cases and hospitalizations have plummeted in recent weeks.

Strict state rules limiting which businesses could open led to 1.6 million job losses last year. A crush of unemployment benefit claims overwhelmed Newsom’s administration, contributing to more than $11 billion in fraud — including an estimated $810 million paid in the names of prison inmates.

That scandal is referenced often by Newsom’s critics but his most damaging political pandemic blow 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 contrasted with his message for state residents to stay home and wear masks.

Newsom apologized after the outing and made no direct reference to the event 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 video released 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 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 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 do that by March 31.

Newsom painted a rosy picture of California’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.

Newsom sometimes is given to overstatements and stretched the truth while referring to the state’s vaccine program and its pandemic death rate.

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 surrounded by 56,000 empty seats that roughly 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 daily 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.”

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Beam reported from Sacramento. Associated Press reporters Kathleen Ronayne and Don Thompson contributed from Sacramento, California.

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