California governor to say return to normal not good enough

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CA Governor Gavin Newsom at Dodger Stadium - City of Los Angeles via Facebook

During his State of the State address Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom will tell exhausted Californians that the coronavirus pandemic “will end soon.” But when it does, the Democrat says, “we’re not going back to normal.” “Normal was never good enough. Normal accepts inequity,” Newsom will say, according to excerpts of his speech released by the governor’s office.

Newsom is set to deliver the address from Dodger Stadium, timed to coincide with evening news broadcasts that will show him surrounded by 56,000 empty seats that represent roughly all of the people in California who have died of COVID-19. It’s a critical speech because he faces a likely recall election later this year, fueled by widespread anger over his handling of the pandemic in the nation’s most populated state.

Even before the speech began, Republican challenger Kevin Faulconer criticized Newsom, saying the governor “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, a former San Diego mayor, said in a video.

According to his prepared remarks, Newsom will say that “COVID was no one’s fault — but it quickly became everyone’s burden.” The excerpts revealed no major policy announcements, instead highlighting what Newsom has already done in partnership with the Democratic-controlled state Legislature. He plans to highlight a recent $7.6 billion stimulus package that will send $600 payments to many low-to moderate-income Californians on top of the $1,400 stimulus checks Congress is likely to approve soon.

He’ll also talk about a recent $6.6 billion spending package aimed at convincing public schools 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 be able to do that by March 31. “Working together with parents, teachers and school leaders — we have turned the conversation from whether to reopen, to when,” Newsom will say.

California governors usually deliver their annual State of the State addresses in the morning during a joint session of the Legislature in Sacramento, a scene that gives the speeches a heavy dose of policy and pomp. This year, Newsom is speaking in one of the country’s largest media markets in the early evening. It’s his biggest platform yet to reach the most number of people before organizers of the recall effort turn in their final batch of signatures to determine whether the election will happen later this year.

The speech also is important for Newsom’s legislative allies, who joined forces with him in recent weeks to approve the schools and stimulus packages. “The governor knows results are more important than rhetoric, but the right message can be helpful in bringing us together on the same page,” said Toni Atkins, the top Democrat in the state Senate. “That’s critical as we move closer to getting COVID-19 under control.” Newsom will highlight vaccination efforts, including being the first state to launch mass vaccination sites in partnership with the federal government. He also will touch on the intense wildfire season, saying, “Let’s call it what it is: climate change.” “Just as we approached COVID, we are guided by science,” Newsom plans to say.

California was the first to issue a statewide stay-at-home order last March, and many of those restrictions have lingered throughout the pandemic. The Newsom administration still says the virus is “widespread” in most counties, triggering limits on businesses and public gatherings. Business and labor groups will be watching Newsom’s speech closely for clues on how he will approach reopening. A key piece of pending legislation would expand paid sick leave for workers who must miss work because of the coronavirus. “We really hope he sends a message to essential workers that the state of California has your back,” said Steve Smith, spokesman for the California Labor Federation.

But the legislation is troubling to John Kabateck, director of the California chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. “The last thing we need are new laws and rules that are going to send small businesses and consumers into a flurry of uncertainty and fear,” he said. Last year, Newsom devoted his entire State of the State address to housing and homelessness, highlighting an issue that has plagued California for decades.

The pandemic disrupted many of Newsom’s plans, although the state did invest heavily in a program to house the homeless in converted hotel rooms. “I’m mindful that we aren’t truly addressing the needs of people in poverty unless we account for the biggest pressure most families face — housing and housing stability,” Newsom will say.

ADAM BEAM and DON THOMPSON • AP News

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