Good morning, California. It’s Wednesday, March 10.

High stakes for governor

Buckle your seatbelts: It’s officially election season in California.

That much was evident from the ambience of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s State of the State speech Tuesday night. The governor stood at a podium in Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium, flanked by massive screens that alternated Zoom snapshots of top Democratic officials with images of California’s prowess and resiliency, including the Hollywood sign and cars lined up at mass vaccination sites. Newsom, who maintained an upbeat tone and smile throughout much of the fast-paced 28-minute speech, walked off the stage to Wilco’s version of “California Stars” — the same song featured in his 2018 election commercials.

In his address, Newsom worked to acknowledge the tragedies of the past year while simultaneously inspiring hope for the future and shoring up the base of voters he’ll need to stave off an almost-certain recall election, CalMatters’ Laurel Rosenhall reports. Newsom gave call-outs to mothers, teachers, workers and Latinos — all key Democratic voter blocs — while highlighting the state’s recent stimulus package, school reopening deal and vaccine strategy. And after months of refusing to reference the recall, he blasted it in his harshest words yet.

  • Newsom: “To the California critics out there who are promoting partisan political power grabs with outdated prejudices, and rejecting everything that makes California truly great, we say this: We will not be distracted from getting shots in arms, and our economy booming again.”

The challenge facing Newsom now is that, with the recall looming over him, critics will try to attribute almost anything he says or does to his desire to stay in office. The governor, whose French Laundry dinner came with a rumored $12,000 wine tab, will need to strike a relatable, empathetic and genuine tone with would-be voters — something Newsom recognizes. “My word of the year is humility,” he said last week at a press conference in Stockton.

  • Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican running for governor: “California needs a comeback. But the only comeback Gavin Newsom is focused on is his own.”

Check out CalMatters’ corrections, clarifications and context for Newsom’s State of the State address here.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Tuesday, California had 3,507,266 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 54,395 deaths (+0.3% from previous day), according to a CalMatters tracker.

Plus: CalMatters regularly updates this pandemic timeline tracking the state’s daily actions. We’re also tracking the state’s coronavirus hospitalizations by county and lawsuits against COVID-19 restrictions.


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1. Big reopening shift ahead

Visitors walk through the lobby of SF MOMA as the museum reopened for the first time in months on March 7, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

Nine counties moved into less restrictive reopening tiers Tuesday, but an even larger shift is on the horizon. California is less than 103,000 doses away from its goal of administering 2 million shots in the state’s most impoverished neighborhoods. Once it reaches that benchmark, it will adjust its reopening criteria to make it easier for counties to move into the red tier, allowing restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and other businesses to reopen indoors at limited capacity and increasing pressure on school districts to bring kids back to campus. The change will have a massive impact on some of the state’s largest counties, such as Los Angeles, which has never managed to exit the most restrictive purple tier but could soon do so under the new criteria. 

Nevertheless, complications in the state’s vaccine strategy persist. Santa Clara County announced late Monday it would not participate in the state’s controversial Blue Shield vaccination program. So far only one county, Kern, has signed a contract with the insurance giant, raising questions as to whether California actually has “the most robust vaccination program in America,” as Newsom claimed in his State of the State speech.

2. Oil plan puts Newsom in bind

Oil pumpjacks along State Route 166 near the Cuyama Valley on Sept. 6, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Although Newsom emphasized the dangers of climate change in his State of the State speech, he may soon find himself signing off on thousands of new drilling applications after Kern County supervisors on Monday unanimously approved a plan to develop more than 40,000 new oil and gas wells over the next 15 years, Politico reports. Newsom is likely to honor the local decision, but he risks further alienating environmental groups at a time when he needs to shore up their support ahead of the potential recall. A national environmental organization recently sued him for issuing “illegal” fracking permits, and others are frustrated by his silence on a fracking ban he ordered lawmakers to introduce.

3. Republicans push to cancel utility debt

Deborah Bell-Holt, who has nearly $15,000 worth of utility debt, at her Los Angeles home on Jan. 21, 2021. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters

Debt cancellation is a controversial topic even among Democrats, but two of California’s top Republican lawmakers want the state to forgive residents’ water, electricity, internet and utility debt. In a March 3 letter to Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat and chairperson of the Senate Budget Committee, GOP Sens. Jim Nielsen and Shannon Grove suggested the state use some of its $25 billion surplus to cancel utility debt and provide aid to small community pharmacies, which many low-income residents depend on for health care and COVID vaccinations.

  • Nielsen and Grove: “Payment plans may help those with jobs. Moratoriums will delay the debt. These patchwork remedies, however, are not sustainable solutions to lift low-income Californians out of their growing piles of debt.”

As CalMatters’ Jackie Botts has reported, 1.6 million California households have water debt totaling $1 billion, and could face shutoffs when Newsom lifts the state of emergency. Meanwhile, around 9 million households are behind on their electric or gas bills and owe more than $1 billion, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.


CalMatters commentary

California economy in peril: Here are three things lawmakers must stop doing if they want to create healthy employment growth for economic recovery, writes David Smith, economics professor at Pepperdine Graziado Business School.


Other things worth your time

Los Angeles reopening deal ends California’s biggest schools standoff. // Politico

Inside Los Angeles’ disorganized vaccine rollout. // New Yorker

Inmates have herd immunity at 7 California prisons. // Sacramento Bee

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin: Across prison walls, I felt my parents’ love. // The Nation

How California’s job seekers found new careers with help from a rent relief program. // Sacramento Bee

Amazon’s third-party drivers owed millions in wage theft probe, state says. // Orange County Register

Tesla to California DMV: Our vehicles are not self-driving. // Los Angeles Times

California may repeal anti-prostitution loitering law over bias concerns. // San Francisco Chronicle

Former Rep. Katie Hill’s lawsuit pits 1st Amendment against California’s revenge-porn law. // Los Angeles Times

UC Davis is offering students $75 to staycation for spring break. // CNN


See you tomorrow.

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Emily Hoeven writes the daily WhatMatters newsletter for CalMatters. Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco Business...