(CNN)Facing a recall effort that has threatened his political future, California Gov. Gavin Newsom acknowledged Tuesday night the fatigue and frustration that many Californians are feeling after a year of sacrifices.

But the Democratic governor insisted in his State of the State address that California is on a path to recovery as Covid-19 cases decline, more teachers are getting vaccinated and more direct aid begins flowing to small businesses “hit hardest” by the pandemic.

Newsom delivered his speech from Dodger Stadium, a hallowed Los Angeles landmark that the city has turned into one of the largest vaccination sites in the country. Standing on the field, under the bright lights in an empty stadium, he said the number of vacant seats behind him was roughly equivalent to the more than 54,000 lives lost in California — “a silent tribute to loved ones who live forever in our memories.”

He defended his own controversial leadership during the pandemic, from his decision to enact the first statewide stay-at-home order in the country about a year ago to the later restrictive orders that he put in place during the winter holiday months as a deadly spike in cases pushed California’s hospital and ICU capacities to their limits.

“We agonized about the sacrifices it would require,” Newsom said of the stay-at-home order. “We made sure that science — not politics — drove our decisions.”

Though his orders throughout the last year sparked anger and helped fuel the energy among Republicans to remove him from office, he said that “it was the right thing to do.”

“People are alive today because of the public health decisions we made — lives saved because of your sacrifice,” he said. “Even so, I acknowledge it’s made life hard and unpredictable, and you’re exhausted by all of it.”

Newsom, who was elected in 2018 with 62% of the vote, promised that “the light at the end of the tunnel is brighter than ever,” noting that the state’s coronavirus case positivity rate has dropped to 2.1% and officials have administered 11 million vaccine shots in a state of 40 million people (including second doses). He asked the state’s residents to stand with him “resolved to make it to brighter days ahead — to not let the pain of last year deter the hopefulness of tomorrow.”

But the well-funded recall effort appears headed to the ballot based on the pace of signature-gathering and verifications thus far. The groups supporting the drive must turn in 1,495,709 valid signatures to county registrars by the deadline of March 17, a total that amounts to 12% of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. County officials then have until the end of April to count and verify those signatures.

Recall proponents plan to collect about 2 million signatures before the deadline to account for duplicates or invalid submissions. In the most recent update issued by the Secretary of State’s office, officials reported that nearly 1.1 million signatures had been submitted by February 5. Of those, county officials had completed the verification process on about 798,310 signatures and more than 668,168 — or 83.7% — were deemed valid.

The high validity rate suggests the groups are on target to meet their goal. If the recall qualifies, it is unclear exactly when it might land on the ballot, because there are a series of procedural steps required by state and county officials before the lieutenant governor would be directed to officially call a recall election.

If a recall election qualifies for the ballot, the state’s voters will be asked to vote yes or no on removing Newsom from office, and then to answer a second question about who they want to see replace him as governor.

The list of potential candidates vying to replace him would likely include former GOP gubernatorial candidate John Cox, who was defeated by Newsom in 2018, and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer. (Both plan to challenge Newsom when he is up for reelection in 2022.) Richard Grenell, the former acting director of national intelligence under President Donald Trump, also hinted during remarks at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida that he might run.

About 52% of likely California voters approve of Newsom’s job performance, according to a January poll from the Public Policy Institute of California, a dip from last May, when his approval rating had risen to 64% in the same survey.

Newsom implicitly addressed the recall in his remarks, stating that he would not “change course just because of a few nay-sayers and dooms-dayers.”

“To the California critics, who are promoting partisan political power grabs and outdated prejudices, and rejecting everything that makes California great, we say this: We will not be distracted from getting shots in arms and our economy booming again,” he said. “This is a fight for California’s future.”