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

Gov. Gavin Newsom smiles and chats at a news conference.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announces a state contract to produce insulin at a news conference in Downey, part of a series of the events the governor held instead of delivering a traditional State of the State speech at the Capitol.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Gavin Newsom insists his presidential ambitions are “subzero,” and I believe him. As president, he probably couldn’t avoid giving a State of the Union speech before Congress. And he’d hate that.

OK, I don’t really know Newsom’s innermost thoughts about running for president. I only know what he has consistently said publicly: He’s not interested. But does that apply just to 2024 or also beyond?

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


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

“I’m just mesmerized by the politicians that are literally handed a script or talking points from an advisor…and they’re able to go up there and just read off the script beautifully,” Newsom told Times reporter Taryn Luna in a candid 2021 interview about his dyslexia.

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

Newsom has trouble reading off a teleprompter. So he often rehearses several times before delivering a major address.

“He hates giving speeches,” a top aide told me. “It’s anxiety-producing for him.”

In Luna’s interview, the governor explained his difficulties with dyslexia: “It’s spelling, writing and just deep struggles reading — and the reading [problem] is comprehension.”

Newsom often reads through his daily briefing binder three times for comprehension, underlining text and taking notes.


Dyslexia certainly does not disqualify someone from being president. A few presidents have struggled with it, starting with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Washington gave the first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.

In reality, Newsom is a talented orator — often long-winded, he admits, but a politician who projects passion and offers straight talk, especially when speaking extemporaneously. He has a unique capacity for memorizing data that he frequently recites, awing listeners.

But last week we again witnessed his resistance to giving major speeches when he scuttled the governor’s annual State of the State address to a joint legislative session.

There was a semi-legitimate rationale: He had given an inaugural address after being sworn in for a second term in January. So, a separate State of the State speech was unnecessary, he reasoned. Former Gov. Jerry Brown figured the same in 2014.

Never mind that the settings of the two speeches are sharply different. A governor’s inaugural address is delivered mainly to celebrating political supporters. A State of the State speech is made to lawmakers who can approve or reject a governor’s legislative agenda.

This is the third straight year that Newsom has avoided giving a State of the State address in the ornate, 19th century Assembly chamber.


Traditionally, the event marks the most festive day of the year in the Capitol. The chamber is jammed with lawmakers, state elected officials, Supreme Court justices, families and friends. They’re all on their best behavior.

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

Last year, Newsom gave his State of the State speech in the state Resources Agency auditorium. There, he had free rein beforehand to repeatedly practice his delivery. The event seemed sterile.

In 2021, Newsom gave the speech in center field of an empty Dodger Stadium. The former college pitcher committed an error on that play. It was widely jeered. He needed a different speech location than the Assembly chamber because tight seating would have risk spreading COVID-19. But an empty baseball stadium?

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

They were successful events that produced hard news. The governor believed they’d draw more public attention than a State of the State address.


But past governors have done both: given a State of the State speech, then embarked on a statewide agenda-selling tour.

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

I noted that Newsom has trouble with teleprompters.

“Then he shouldn’t read off teleprompters,” Brown says.

Not everyone has the same reference toward State of the State speeches.

“They’re kind of b—,” says Brown’s longtime San Francisco political ally, former state Senate leader John Burton. “They’re much overrated. The minority party says the speech is ‘a bunch of crap.’ And the majority party says it’s ‘great.’ The state of the state is always ‘sound.’”

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

But Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda) says abandoning the State of the State doesn’t bother him. “Legislators are just props.”

It bothers me, however.

When the governor gives a State of the State address he shows respect for the Legislature and the whole institution of government. All three branches come together for a few hours of fellowship. It’s a happy tradition worth keeping.


Next year, Newsom should submit a written message to the Legislature — that’s his intent this year — but also show up at a joint session. Junk the teleprompter. Ad-lib whatever’s on his mind. He’d excel.

And his interest in the presidency might rise above subzero.