Gov. Jerry Brown, plunging into position as a Democratic bulwark against Donald Trump’s presidency, warned Tuesday of looming battles with Republican-controlled Washington, using his State of the State address to assuage fears that California would turn its back on progressive policies.
Brown reiterated promises to protect undocumented immigrants, provide health care to the needy and continue his signature fight against climate change. Yet he pledged to work with Washington on infrastructure improvements to, as Trump said, “build and build big.”
“I say ‘Amen to that,’ man!” Brown told a joint session of the Legislature, drawing bipartisan applause. “Amen to that, brother! We’re there with you.”
Brown took to the rostrum after swearing in his nominee for attorney general, the veteran Rep. Xavier Becerra, a son of immigrants and Los Angeles Democrat who earlier this year accused Trump of exploiting America’s laws to “put himself first.”
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Brown, who served previously as governor from 1975 to 1983, didn’t mention Trump by name and was concise about his immediate priorities. But as he depicted California as a place that has guarded its values and ideals while serving as a liberal lighthouse for the nation, he intimated that the times demanded a broader focus than his administration’s plans for its final two years.
“While no one knows what the new leaders will actually do, there are signs that are disturbing. We have seen the bald assertion of ‘alternative facts,’ whatever those are,’ Brown said in the 16-minute speech, referring to Trump aide Kellyanne Conway’s remarks Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We have heard the blatant attacks on science. Familiar signposts of our democracy – truth, civility, working together – have been obscured or swept aside.”
Trump’s campaign rhetoric, cabinet appointments and first actions in the White House to imperil the federal healthcare law and advance construction of controversial oil pipelines have stirred the anxieties of Democrats. On Tuesday came reports the Republican was temporarily banning the Environmental Protection Agency from awarding new contracts or grants and prohibiting EPA employees from giving updates on social media or to news reporters.
Beyond urging the citizenry to practice civility and truth, Brown said whatever happens in Washington, “they can’t change the facts. And these are the facts: the climate is changing, the temperatures are rising and so are the oceans ... The world knows this.”
In his second stint at the Capitol, Brown advanced a temporary sales and income tax measure that helped him dig the state out of a $27-billion deficit.
His bullet-pointed list of accomplishments includes increasing funding for schools and universities, extending health care to more than five million residents, raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2021, reducing prison overcrowding and, with the help of Republicans, pushing for passage of a water bond and rainy day budget reserve in 2014.
Democratic legislative leaders praised Brown’s speech for his promise to protect California’s “progress.” They were more skeptical of opportunities to collaborate with the Trump administration.
“If the president wants to build infrastructure in California – whether it’s roads, trains, etc. – we want to make sure that workers’ rights are protected,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said. “We want to make sure that the environment is protected.”
Republicans thanked Brown for his nods to bipartisan accomplishment in California. But they asked that he also consider their priorities, like high housing costs and gas prices, which went unmentioned Tuesday.
“I’m hopeful that (Brown’s call for bipartisanship) means with all policy here in California, and it doesn’t just mean on the few things that they need us for, like tax increases,” Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes said. “We are not the land of opportunity that we once were.”
Senate Republican Leader Jean Fuller, in a reference to Trump’s inauguration speech, said the “forgotten men and women” in their districts need jobs.
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Stepping into the twilight of his time as governor, Brown countered Trump’s “America first” inauguration with a plea to its nearly 40 million occupants to “act as Californians first.” It was a message that Brown has pushed about his home state since his earliest days as a politician: “What we do here will not only help our own citizens, it will provide a model for the entire country,” he said in his first inaugural address.
Weaving in his family narrative, Brown said it was no accident that the ship that brought his great-grandfather to America was named “Perseverance.”
Barbara O’Connor, a political analyst and retired communications professor at Sacramento State, said the governor was now “uniquely positioning himself as California’s spiritual captain,” while Republican strategist Mike Madrid called it the perfect symbol for the precarious waters Brown is charting.
“Tie yourself to the mast, because it’s going to be a rough journey,” Madrid said, calling the speech “aspirational and more big-picture” in its approach.
“He has a bad hand. He has to rally troops,” Madrid added, “but also leave open the possibility of working with an administration that holds all the cards.”
Brown maintained high approval ratings and carried his political winning streak through the fall, passing a November parole measure and scuttling an initiative that jeopardized his rail and Delta water tunnel projects. Had Democrat Hillary Clinton won the presidential race, as Brown was anticipating, he planned to help heal the wounds of division. “You can’t be a superpower and wallow in dysfunctionality,” he lamented early on Election Day.
Instead, it was Trump’s surprise victory that pushed Brown to the forefront of California’s multiplying resistance efforts.
“While we now face different challenges, make no mistake: the future is uncertain and dangers abound,” Brown said Tuesday, before concluding with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” “Whether it’s the threat to our budget, or to undocumented Californians, or to our efforts to combat climate change – or even more global threats such as a financial meltdown or a nuclear incident or terrorist attack – this is a time which calls out for courage and for perseverance. I promise you both....
“California is not turning back. Not now, not ever.”