Newsom attacks 'delusional California bashers' in unorthodox speech

LOS ANGELES CA - March 09: Gov. Gavin Newsom delivers his third State of the State address to the Legislature and public virtually from en empty Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles Tuesday, March 9, 2021. There is no in-person audience at the outdoor location and public health guidelines are strictly observed. Photo taken at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday, March 9, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
In 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom delivered his third State of the State address virtually from an empty Dodger Stadium. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Gavin Newsom took on “delusional California bashers” and lauded the state's economic prowess and inclusive values in an unorthodox State of the State speech that he shared in a video Tuesday on social media.

Repeating familiar tropes of past political speeches, Newsom cast the state as a force of light against dark conservative forces. He boasted about California's work to protect civil rights and attacked Republicans in other states for "telling a woman she's not in charge of her own body."

"Our values and our way of life are the antidote to the poisonous populism of the right, and to the fear and anxiety that so many people are feeling today," Newsom said. "People across the globe, they look to California and see what’s possible, and how we can live together and advance together and prosper together across every conceivable and imaginable difference."

The prerecorded address marks the fourth year in a row that Newsom has broken the California tradition of the governor delivering the annual address to lawmakers at the state Capitol.

His GOP foes said the decision to reject the conventional setting again is an example of Newsom's lack of commitment to the job as he expands his national profile.

“The governor has no respect for this institution,” said Assemblymember James Gallagher (R-Yuba City). “This governor acts like he’s too busy to do things that he’s supposed to do. He’s obviously able to do it in person.”

Newsom's aides defended the governor, pointing out that the California Constitution only requires him to submit a written letter to the Legislature. Newsom invited lawmakers to a private reception at the governor's mansion in Sacramento on Monday evening.

Prior governors have used the speech, which has been historically delivered in January, to outline their policy agenda for the year to lawmakers from both houses and political parties in the Assembly chamber. The typical address offers an opportunity to show deference to lawmakers, by appearing in person on their floor, and to gather their support for the work ahead.

But critics of the address call it a tired ritual in an era of one-party rule and say the value of the speech has been usurped by the budget, which has become the governor's main avenue to drive policy change.

Read more: Newsom proposes bond measure, sweeping mental health reform in California

Newsom, who dislikes reading off teleprompters because of his dyslexia, has not delivered the State of the State in the Capitol since 2020. Newsom's address was streamed the following year from an empty Dodger Stadium, a mass COVID-19 vaccination site where the number of seats offered a symbolic representation of the California lives lost in the pandemic at the time.

The governor in 2022 spoke from the headquarters of the California Natural Resources Agency in Sacramento, a 21-story environmentally friendly glass tower blocks from the Capitol, and promised gas rebates to taxpayers. Newsom declined to give a speech last year and instead opted for a statewide press tour, where he sprinkled policy announcements at stops from Sacramento to San Diego.

The governor's office said Newsom wanted to deliver the speech in the chamber this year and struggled to find a date that worked with the Legislature.

The speech was initially slated for March 13. The address was rescheduled after Newsom's bond measure to fund mental health services, Proposition 1, remained too close to call for two weeks after the March 5 primary election. His speech was rewritten with a plan to deliver it on March 18 and then delayed again.

Read more: Opposition concedes that Newsom likely to eke out a win on Proposition 1 in California

Debates over how to solve California's $46.8-billion budget deficit heated up the following month and continued until last week. Now lawmakers and the governor are staring down an impending deadline to qualify measures on the November ballot and negotiating with interest groups to rescind the initiatives they oppose.

Democratic Sen. Steve Glazer of Orinda was unfazed by Newsom's nontraditional approach to the speech, saying simply that "we are in changing times," and he respects the governor's choice in how he delivers his message.

For one member of an earlier generation of lawmakers, though, Newsom's video message came off like a snub.

"I hope it's the last time it ever happens," said Rusty Areias, who was a Democratic assemblyman in the 1980s and ’90s.

"It's one of the things that members always look forward to. I understand the governor is very busy. I understand that there are national and international issues that are probably more important, but it is a tradition that in my mind is worth maintaining."

In his address, Newsom touted his administration's work to lessen homelessness and crime, two policy areas in which he's most politically vulnerable.

"When it comes to America’s homeless problem, California’s detractors have similarly offered nothing but rhetoric, moaning and casting blame," Newsom said. "No state, by the way, has done as much as California in addressing this pernicious problem of homelessness plaguing cities and towns."

He pushed back on a narrative that California is "defunding the police," saying the state is recruiting 1,000 California Highway Patrol officers and passing retail theft reforms this year.

In a lighter moment, he described the state as a "weird, wild, free-spirited" creative haven, home to the heavy metal band Metallica and rapper Kendrick Lamar and a place that invented "the popsicle, blue jeans and Barbie."

Newsom's speech alluded to the November presidential election, which he referred to as "another extraordinary moment in history — for California, for the country, and for the world." He compared the moment to an “anxious” time in 1939, when then-California Gov. Culbert Olson in his inaugural address warned about the “the destruction of democracy” as fascism spread throughout Europe.

"We are presented with a choice between a society that embraces our values and a world darkened by division and discrimination," Newsom said. "The economic prosperity, health, safety and freedom that we enjoy are under assault. Forces are threatening the very foundation of California's success — our pluralism, our innovative spirit, and our diversity."

Newsom is expected to travel to Atlanta this week to attend the presidential debate on Thursday as a surrogate for President Biden. The governor, who has built a reputation as a Democrat unafraid of taking the fight to Republicans, was invited by the Biden campaign to participate in media interviews before and after the debate to support the president and the party.

The governor used the speech to attack conservatives nationally over reproductive rights, an issue Democrats have tried to capitalize on in the election.

“When it comes to reproductive rights, their lies are designed to control,” Newsom said. “Their draconian policies are driving women to flee across state lines, as fugitives from laws written by men more than a hundred years ago. Some even go so far as to force victims of assault to give birth to their rapist’s babies.”

Sacramento Bureau Chief Laurel Rosenhall and staff writer Anabel Sosa contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.