Two prominent governors who could be their parties’ nominees for president next year outlined competing visions for the country in largely ignored inaugural addresses this month. In their speeches, Florida’s Ron DeSantis and California’s Gavin Newsom both focused on freedom—Newsom invoked the term 17 times, DeSantis 12—and the perceived sins of their enemies. Each man also referenced the other, though not by name, hinting that each understands the potential for a DeSantis–Newsom showdown, whether in 2024 or later. Their contrasting styles and visions are worth examining.
DeSantis’s liberal critics often accuse him of being a dictatorial Trump clone. But his concise, 1,649-word inaugural address was all-business, with no Trumpian bluster and no stories about his working-class background or his family, beyond thanking his wife, Casey, whom he refers to as the First Lady. Newsom, by contrast, called his wife, Jennifer, the First Partner, and spent nearly half the speech talking about his own life.
The California governor seemed eager to paint himself as a victim. Newsom said that he spent some of the “longest hours” of his first term thinking about his childhood, which he characterized as one of “divorce and dyslexia.” He portrayed himself as a directionless youth who “couldn’t read,” with a father (a state judge) who “left us.” Newsom bizarrely described a childhood visit he took with his father to San Francisco’s Chinatown that was “on its face . . . a mission for food,” but that ultimately was intended to “give (him) a slice of San Francisco” and “the story of California.”
After referencing a childhood rafting trip, the governor oddly segued into what he outlined as “dark moments in California’s journey.” The extensive catalog included a “brutal genocide against native people”; the anti-Chinese bigotry of nineteenth-century labor leader and politician Denis Kearney; the Chinese Exclusion Act of the 1880s; Japanese internment during World War II; postwar exclusionary zoning in the suburbs; the “homophobic hate” of the failed 1978 Briggs Initiative, a ballot measure that sought to bar gays from teaching in public schools; 2008’s Proposition 8, which passed and would have banned same-sex marriage in California if not for court challenges; “anti-immigrant xenophobia,” as manifested in 1994’s Proposition 187; and “the insurrectionist mob (who) ransacked a sacred pillar of our democracy” on January 6.
Newsom claimed, without explanation, that January 6 was “decades in the making.” And, in a clear dig at DeSantis, he called the Briggs Initiative a “1970s version” of Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay law. He claimed that the Right wants to “silence speech, fire teachers, kidnap migrants, subjugate women, attack the Special Olympics, and even demonize Mickey Mouse, all camouflaged under a hijacking of the word ‘freedom.’” Conservatives, Newsom suggested, want “more intrusive government” and are busy “banning abortion, banning books, banning free speech in the classroom, and in the boardroom.”
Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, dishonestly branded “don’t say gay” in the press, doesn’t silence speech or fire teachers—it merely prohibits “classroom instruction” on gender identity and sexual orientation for children in kindergarten through third grade. The move to strip Disney of its tax status, DeSantis says, is an effort to treat a company that’s becoming increasingly political like any other corporation in the state. Florida rejected textbooks with woke content, but no books have been “banned.” Several states have banned abortion, but it remains legal in Florida up to 15 weeks, with exceptions beyond that point to save a mother’s life, prevent serious injury to the mother, or if the baby has a fatal abnormality.
Newsom’s contention that the Right is “hijacking” the word “freedom” was another shot at DeSantis, whose reelection-campaign slogan was “Keep Florida Free.” Newsom spoke of the need for “freedom for teachers to teach, free of litmus tests about their political party, or the person they love,” without explaining who is supposedly proposing such measures. But it was in Newsom’s state where at least 496 Los Angeles public school teachers have been fired for refusing the Covid vaccine. It was Newsom who infringed on personal liberty during the pandemic with onerous Covid restrictions, including some, like mask mandates, that he personally flouted, leading to a 2021 special election, in which 38 percent of his constituents voted to remove him from office.
Newsom also puzzlingly defined his version of “freedom” as allowing the “freedom to vote without intimidation, with results decided by the people, not the politicians.” And, after spending nearly half his speech outlining real and alleged slights against victims, including himself, Newsom audaciously accused the Right of “promoting grievance and victimhood” to “erase . . . progress.”
DeSantis’s significantly shorter and more policy-focused speech detailed his achievements and his contention that Florida is a “land of liberty and sanity.” His idea of freedom, he said, is to let Florida be a “laboratory of democracy,” a place that “taxed lightly, regulated reasonably, and spent conservatively.”
DeSantis took a swipe at Newsom and California by referring to a “mass exodus of productive Americans” from states that “coddled criminals,” “imposed unreasonable burdens on taxpayers,” and “imposed medical authoritarianism in the guide of pandemic mandates.” DeSantis said he rejects “soft on crime policies” and the Biden administration’s “open borders” approach to immigration. By contrast, the only references that Newsome made to crime and immigration were to say that conservatives were “selling fear and panic” on these issues and that Californians should have the “freedom” to access health care “regardless of immigration status.”
DeSantis spoke of the challenge Florida families face in reckoning with what he called the federal government’s “inflationary spending binge.” Newsom made no mention of inflation. DeSantis’s biggest applause line came when he said that Florida will “never surrender to the woke mob.” Newsom’s most popular line was his claim that California has provided “debt-free college to hundreds of thousands of students.”
In California, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than 5 million, while in Florida, Republicans hold just a 356,212-vote advantage. Yet, DeSantis’s 19.4 percent margin of victory was 1 percentage point greater than Newsom’s. The “battle lines are drawn,” Newsom said in his speech, and he’s right. Florida ranks Number One in recent net migration, while California ranks last among the 50 states. Voters may soon decide which leader’s vision of freedom they prefer—the one promising more wokeness or the one pledging to fight it.
Photos: Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images (left) / Scott Olson/Getty Images (right)