In an era of political uncertainty, Gov. Jerry Brown's State of the State address sees California as a model for the nation

By the time his brief but blustery State of the State speech ended on Tuesday, it was clear that Gov. Jerry Brown had offered his most sweeping rebuke to date of President Trump and the new leadership of Congress.

But the critique circled back to the same conclusion Brown has reached several times since returning to the governor’s office — that what most ails the nation is that it’s not enough like California.

“When we defend California, we defend America,” the governor said to applause from lawmakers at the state Capitol. “We must prepare for uncertain times and reaffirm the basic principles that have made California the great exception that it is.”

Brown’s Sacramento speech was delivered just four days after Trump’s fiery inaugural manifesto, a quirk of timing that might have convinced him to liven up what in recent years has mostly been a no-frills homily in praise of cautious governing. 

The governor said that recent events had made it hard “to keep my thoughts just on California.” It was the first such admission from Brown, who has largely avoided the political or policy lines in the sand drawn by the state’s other Democratic leaders in the wake of Trump’s victory.

He abandoned that reticence to speak out in Tuesday’s State of the State address on several occasions, including a short reference to top Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway’s defense of inaccuracies in describing the size of the crowd for the presidential inauguration.

“We’ve seen the bald assertion of ‘alternative facts,’ whatever those are,” Brown said of the comments made last weekend on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

No part of Tuesday’s speech was more forceful than when the governor promised to protect those who live in California without legal U.S. residency. He admitted that “federal law is supreme” when it comes to immigration, but bragged about California policies that take a blind eye to immigration status when offering access to higher education, employment rights and driver’s licenses. 

“We may be called upon to defend those laws, and defend them we will,” said the governor, his voice rising and his right index finger pushing downward for emphasis.

“And let me be clear: We will defend everybody — every man, woman and child — who has come here for a better life and has contributed to the well-being of our state,” he said.

At that point, Democrats in the Assembly chamber jumped to their feet for a standing ovation while Republicans largely sat in silence.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego) said that she hoped the governor’s promise was a signal for support of pending legislation to help immigrants who face deportation hearings.

“For the last few months I think we’ve been thinking, ‘What is the one thing that he’s going to stand for, that we’re all going to stand for?’ ” said Gonzalez Fletcher, who is vice chairwoman of the Latino Legislative Caucus. “It was clear when it comes to immigration he is not willing to go backwards.”

Brown also gave a mention to healthcare, as national efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act stand to jeopardize more than $16 billion in federal subsidies and affect millions of Californians enrolled in the state’s Medi-Cal program.

And the governor gave no quarter when it came to California’s aggressive efforts to combat the causes of climate change, now one of his signature issues. Oklahoma Atty. Gen. Scott Pruitt, the president’s choice to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, cast doubt last week on continued approval of California’s unique emissions rules for cars and trucks.

“Whatever they do in Washington, they can’t change the facts,” Brown said. “And these are the facts: The climate is changing, the temperatures are rising and so are the oceans.”

But for all of his swagger in pledging to fight the Trump administration, the veteran politician admitted there is opportunity for collaboration when it comes to the president’s pledge to commit as much as $1 trillion to expanding and repairing the nation’s roads and railways.

“And I say, ‘Amen to that, man. Amen to that, brother.’ We’re there with you!” the governor shouted in a bit of improvisation during the prepared speech.

Brown has generally used his State of the State speeches as moments of reflection rather than calls to action. Unlike previous governors who used the address as a launching pad for sweeping new policy proposals, Brown has given short shrift to such tradition.

That kind of caution left some Democrats disappointed, hoping that the governor would have used the occasion to embrace a new effort at easing California’s growing crisis of affordable housing for low- and middle-income families.

“It was a real missed opportunity,” said Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles). “It seems to be a back-burner issue for this administration.”

Gov. Brown predicts California's budget deficit could come back in 2017 »

Still, Brown’s fellow Democrats gave him ample applause. They celebrated when, minutes before the speech, he administered the oath of office to Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra. The former Los Angeles congressman was confirmed to the post by the state Senate on Monday.

They applauded, too, when the governor praised Saturday’s marches across the state and nation in support of women’s rights. And many nodded or smiled when he called for a renewed focus on truth and civility in politics.

“I urge you to go even further and look for new ways to work beyond party and act as Californians first,” he said. “Democrats are in the majority, but Republicans represent real Californians, too.”

“I’m thankful that he gave us an olive branch,” said Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes (R-Yucca Valley), though he said he hoped bipartisan efforts would not be limited to the items that might require a handful of GOP legislative votes for final passage.

Brown frequently sprinkles literary passages or Latin phrases into his remarks, and on Tuesday he tacked on some of the lyrics from legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” to his speech — along with one final vow to defend the state’s policy preferences.

“California is not turning back,” he said. “Not now, not ever.”

Times staff writer Liam Dillon contributed to this report.

john.myers@latimes.com

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