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Column: Newsom shouldn’t shy away from a State of the State speech


Governor Gavin Newsom insists that his presidential ambitions are “below zero,” and I believe him. As president, he probably couldn’t help but give a State of the Union address to Congress. And he would hate that.

OK, I don’t really know Newsom’s innermost thoughts on running for president. I only know what he has always said publicly: he is not interested. But does that apply only to 2024 or beyond as well?

The 55-year-old Democrat should enjoy being mentioned as a potential top-tier candidate. Any politician would. And he’s clearly trying to be seen as a national political leader who promotes progressive causes.

But it’s a good guess that Newsom looks at certain presidential duties, like all speeches, especially the annual State of the Union address, and cringes. Reading speeches—reading just about anything—is difficult for the governor because of the dyslexia he’s struggled with all his life.

“I am mesmerized by politicians who are literally handed a script or talking points from an adviser … and they can go up there and just read the script beautifully,” Newsom told Times reporter Taryn Luna in a candid 2021. interview about his dyslexia.

“Then I’m up there after I’ve done all this research, spending like six hours, to give a five or six minute presentation.”

Newsom has trouble reading a teleprompter. So he often rehearses several times before delivering an important speech.

“He hates giving speeches,” a senior attendee told me. “It makes you anxious.”

In Luna’s interview, the governor explained his struggles with dyslexia: “It’s spelling, writing and just profound reading difficulties, and the reading (problem) is comprehension.”

Newsom often reads his daily briefing folder three times to comprehend, underline text and take notes.

Dyslexia certainly doesn’t disqualify someone from being president. Some presidents have had a problem with that, starting with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Washington delivered the first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.

In reality, Newsom is a gifted speaker, often wordy, he admits, but a politician who projects passion and speaks frankly, especially when speaking extemporaneously. He has a unique ability to memorize facts that he frequently recites, amazing his listeners.

But last week we again witnessed his reluctance to make big speeches when he scuttled the governor’s annual state of the state address in a joint legislative session.

There was a semi-legitimate justification: he had given an inaugural address after being sworn in for a second term in January. Therefore, a separate speech on the state of the state was unnecessary, she reasoned. Former Governor Jerry Brown thought the same in 2014.

Never mind that the settings of the two discourses are markedly different. A governor’s inaugural address is delivered primarily to celebrate political supporters. A state of the state address is made to legislators who can approve or reject a governor’s legislative agenda.

This is the third year in a row that Newsom has avoided giving a State of the State address in the ornate 19th-century House of Assembly.

Traditionally, the event marks the most festive day of the year at the Capitol. The chamber is packed with legislators, state elected officials, Supreme Court justices, family and friends. They are all on their best behavior.

No one has yet yelled “you’re a liar” as some Republican lawmakers have done during the State of the Union speech.

Last year, Newsom delivered his State of the State address at the State Resources Agency Auditorium. There, he had free rein beforehand to repeatedly practice delivering him. The event seemed barren.

In 2021, Newsom delivered the speech in center field of an empty Dodger Stadium. The former college pitcher made an error on that play. He was widely booed. He needed a location for the speech other than the Assembly hall because crowded seating would risk spreading COVID-19. But an empty ballpark?

This year, Newsom dropped any pretense of State of State. Instead, he hit the road late last week in four cities to announce new policies on homelessness, prisoner rehabilitation, low-cost insulin and mental health services.

They were successful events that produced hard news. The Governor believed they would attract more public attention than a State of the State address.

But previous governors have done both: deliver a state of the state address and then embark on a statewide agenda-selling tour.

“The State of the State is just as important as the State of the Union,” says Democrat Willie Brown, a legendary former Assembly speaker and mayor of San Francisco. “It sets the tone and agenda for the year for all legislators. It lets them know how important their job is.”

I noticed that Newsom has a problem with teleprompters.

“Then you shouldn’t be reading the teleprompters,” says Brown.

Not all have the same reference to the speeches of the State of the State.

“They’re a bit b—,” says Brown’s former political ally in San Francisco, former state Senate leader John Burton. They are very overrated. The minority party says the speech is ‘a bunch of rubbish’. And the majority party says it’s ‘great’. The state of the state is always ‘solid’”.

“I’m old school and I’ll miss him,” says Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana). “I will miss the camaraderie, the festive occasion, the bond.”

But Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda) says leaving State of State doesn’t bother him. “Lawmakers are just accessories.”

It bothers me, however.

When the governor gives a State of the State address, he shows respect for the Legislature and the entire institution of government. The three branches meet for a few hours of fellowship. It is a happy tradition worth keeping.

Next year, Newsom should send a written message to the Legislature — that’s his intention this year — but also appear in a joint session. He throws away the teleprompter. Improvise whatever he has in mind. He would stick out.

And his interest in the presidency could rise above zero.

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