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Gavin Newsom warns that dark forces are threatening California

Gov. Gavin Newsom delivers a pre-recorded State of the State address via YouTube on June 25, 2024.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
Gov. Gavin Newsom delivers a pre-recorded State of the State address via YouTube on June 25, 2024.

Months of speculation and complaints about when, or even if, Gov. Gavin Newsom would give his annual State of the State address ended this morning with more of a whimper than a bang.

At a few minutes past 10 a.m., Newsom posted a pre-recorded speech to his social media channels. Flanked by American and California flags, the Democratic governor solemnly warned that “the California way of life is under attack” by forces threatened by the state’s diversity, pluralism and innovative spirit.

“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. “For conservatives and delusional California bashers, their success depends on our failure.”


Eschewing the convention of delivering live remarks to the Legislature in the stately Assembly chambers of the Capitol, Newsom’s subdued approach this year drew fierce condemnation from his Republican critics — who had fastidiously tracked the days since he canceled his original speech in March and called him a coward for not showing up in person to defend his record in office.

“While this pre-recorded speech fulfills the governor’s legal mandate, it does not in any real way fulfill his responsibility to Californians who deserve a safe, affordable and opportunity-filled future,” Sen. Kelly Seyarto, a Murrieta Republican, said in a pre-response video.

But the governor’s dodge is unlikely to matter to most Californians, many of whom may not register this low-key event at all — barely 1,000 people tuned in for the premiere on YouTube. And that’s precisely the point.

Letting the rescheduling of the State of the State drag on for so long was a mistake that opened Newsom to unnecessary, if largely inconsequential, criticism, said Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant who served as communications director for former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Forgoing a big speech ends the saga with as little attention as possible.

“He got caught in tough circumstances here,” Stutzman said.


Even with his unorthodox solution, the remarks were classic Newsom, incorporating many of his favorite talking points as stock footage played on the screen.

The address included a lengthy defense of what California has accomplished in the past few years — protecting reproductive rights, seizing fentanyl at the border with Mexico, clearing homeless encampments — which he argued undermines a persistent narrative of a failing state.

Faced with rising concerns over how California is handling crime, Newsom pointed to statistics that indicate gun violence and homicide rates are higher in Republican-led states.

“All of those facts fly in the face of the California haters who want to tear us down because they know our success is a spotlight on their own failures,” Newsom said.

The governor also highlighted the CARE Court system that he developed to push more people with serious mental health challenges into treatment and a bond approved by voters in March to fund more beds for those patients.

“Every year, the people of California stun the world with something new that our detractors could never have dreamed of,” he said. “The only surprise is that they keep being surprised.”

It’s not unprecedented for Newsom to skip a traditional State of the State address. He’s done it three times in his six years in office, including a speech from an empty Dodgers Stadium in 2021, during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and a four-day policy tour across California last year.

But today’s event — fulfilling the governor’s constitutional obligation to “report to the Legislature each calendar year on the condition of the State” by sending them the text of his remarks — was the most muted of Newsom’s tenure, reflecting the sour political mood that he currently faces.

Newsom originally planned to deliver the State of the State in March, following the primary election, but he abruptly delayed the speech when results for his signature mental health care proposal wound up too close to call. It ultimately passed by less than four-tenths of a percentage point, after weeks of counting.

The governor’s office said at the time that it would work with the Legislature to find a new date. As weeks turned into months, however, their time was consumed instead by negotiations to close California’s multibillion-dollar budget deficit, not to mention bill hearings and a gubernatorial trip to the Vatican to discuss climate change. Newsom has also battled recently with proponents of an initiative to strengthen criminal penalties for drug and property crimes, pushing unsuccessfully to remove it from the November ballot.

Amid a season of unflattering headlines for the governor, a new survey from the Public Policy Institute of California this month found that just 44% of respondents approved of Newsom’s job performance while 54% disapproved, the worst assessment he has received since taking office in 2019.

With Newsom and legislative leaders reaching a budget deal over the weekend, and the Legislature soon heading out of town for most of July on recess, the State of the State was suddenly back on — sort of.

The governor’s office announced its plan for a reformatted speech on Sunday. Instead of visiting the Assembly chambers, Newsom held a private reception with lawmakers the evening before his remarks were posted online.

Despite the brouhaha over this year’s address, the pomp and ceremony of the State of the State has long fluctuated as different governors found variable utility in the event.

Two decades ago, Schwarzenegger capitalized on his movie star power and got the evening newscasts to broadcast his speeches live. Stutzman said the State of the State was a tool for Schwarzenegger to launch his annual agenda.

“There is some benefit to the governor working with the Legislature to lay out some priorities at the beginning of the session,” Stutzman said. “Let ’em know where you’re going to put your political capital.”

Schwarzenegger’s successor, Gov. Jerry Brown, did not seem to relish the requirement and even folded it into the inauguration for his final term. But Brown was very bound by tradition, noted Miriam Pawel, author of “The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty that Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation,” and he showed up to the Legislature each year to speak — albeit often for fewer than 20 minutes, offering philosophical admonitions alongside rundowns of his accomplishments.

“They were very in character,” Pawel said. “They were short, they were to the point.”

Though considerably longer, Newsom’s latest speech leaned toward the Brown mode, placing California at an “extraordinary moment in history.” The governor evoked the spread of fascism across Europe in 1939 and, without naming former President Trump, suggested that California was a bulwark against a similar creeping rollback of progress.

“We are presented with a choice between a society that embraces our values and a world darkened by division and discrimination,” Newsom said. “But California won’t bend. We are a success story exactly because of our universality and our extraordinary diversity, and because we practice pluralism.”