SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom won’t give a State of the State address this year, shunning the teleprompter that has frustrated him because of his dyslexia in favor of a statewide tour this month, in which he can highlight his major policy goals in a more informal setting.
It’s a break from tradition for Newsom, a Democrat and potentially a future presidential candidate who has attempted many times to reinvent the speech for modern audiences. He has tried devoting the entire speech to just one topic - homelessness in 2020 - and using Dodger Stadium during the pandemic to give exhausted residents a pep talk about “ brighter days ahead.”
Scripted speeches have given Newsom trouble because of his dyslexia, a common learning disability that makes it harder for him to read and do other things related to reading. It’s why he rarely uses notes in his public appearances and memorizes vast amounts of facts and figures. Last year, he invited lawmakers to hear his speech in a large auditorium in Sacramento in part because he could use a larger screen, according to the governor’s office.
Just about every governor in the U.S. gives a State of the State address, which mimics the State of the Union speech given by the president to Congress every year. The California Constitution requires the governor report to the state Legislature every year “on the condition of the State.”
Prior to World War II, governors would fulfill this requirement by sending a letter to the Legislature. That changed in the 1940s, when former Gov. Earl Warren - who would later become chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court - began giving a formal speech to the Legislature, according to Alex Vassar, a librarian at the California State Library who acts as an unofficial historian of the state Legislature. Governors have been giving speeches ever since.
This year, Newsom plans to fulfill his constitutional requirement by sending a letter to the state Legislature. Next week, the governor’s office says, Newsom plans to embark on a four-day tour of the state to highlight his priorities.
“Long gone are the days of an hourlong gubernatorial address on prime-time TV that everyone went into their living room and watched,” said Matt Barreto, a political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was one of President Joe Biden’s pollsters during the 2020 election. “Perhaps the governor is thinking there are more effective ways of going out into the community and speaking directly to voters.”
Newsom has talked openly about his dyslexia, including writing a semi-autobiographical children’s book in 2021, pledging to donate all proceeds to the International Dyslexia Association. The condition hasn’t slowed him down. Newsom has given two major speeches already this year: his second inaugural address and an hourslong budget briefing for reporters, both in January.
“Building on his inaugural address and January budget, the Governor looks forward to fulfilling his constitutional obligation to update the Legislature on the state of the state - and joining lawmakers across California to outline transformative police proposals that will strengthen our communities,” Anthony York, Newsom‘s senior adviser for communications, said in a text message.
Tom Lackey, chair of the Assembly Republican Caucus, called Newsom’s tour a way “to distract from his record of failure.”
“The format of his message is less important than its contents - an honest State of the State should acknowledge that California is in trouble,” Lackey said, pointing to issues like inflation, crime and homelessness.
In recent years, California’s State of the State speech has faded from public view. Many governors would deliver the speech in the morning to a joint session of the Legislature, far from prime-time audiences. Those speeches served a different purpose, marking the beginning of negotiations with legislative leaders and allowing the governor to set the agenda for lawmakers’ work ahead.
Newsom‘s biggest policy goal this year is to pass a law penalizing big oil companies for making too much profit. Newsom says it will help rein in the rising cost of gas, which hit an all time high last summer of nearly $6.44 per gallon. The Legislature has yet to act on Newsom‘s proposal, with some Democrats voicing concern about the proposal at a recent public hearing.
“The main complaint about the governor in Sacramento is that he doesn’t communicate with the Legislature for them to know where he stands on controversies and what he prioritizes,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. “By canceling his one big date with the Legislature, he could really be costing himself with this insider audience.”
Not so, says Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.
“If anything, I think this helps build the relationship between individual members and the governor, particularly at a time when we have almost a quarter of the body is new,” Rendon said. “I think it’s great. No, it’s not at all a sign of tension between us.”
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