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Capitol Journal: Taking on Trump in his State of the State speech, Gov. Brown reminded us that he loves the limelight

Gov. Jerry Brown delivers his 2017 State of the State speech Tuesday, addressing questions about the Trump presidency's impact on California at the State Capitol building in Sacramento.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Jerry Brown will be 82 in 2020 when President Trump is up for reelection. Is that too old to challenge him? Not necessarily. But is it too old for voters? Just a bit.

This came to mind Tuesday as I watched Brown deliver his annual State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature. He seemed to be trying to revive his robust, ambitious youth. And he was enjoying every moment.

The governor, accompanied by a bipartisan escort of legislators, practically raced down the Assembly chamber’s center aisle, taking no time to shake hands and acknowledge welcomes.

He appeared to be trying to rev himself up for a high-octane delivery, to generate an extra rush of adrenaline and portray firmness and resolve. If so, it worked. It was his most fiery State of the State speech, at least as a septuagenarian.

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It reminded me of the young Gov. Brown who ran twice for president and once for the U.S. Senate. Later, a middle-aged Brown also ran for president against Bill Clinton.

One could always tell when the young governor was daydreaming of the Potomac. He’d start focusing intensely on national issues.

During his second inaugural address in 1979 — while warming up to challenge then-President Carter for the Democratic nomination — Brown called for a U.S. constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget. Legislators rolled their eyes.

The subject matter was different Tuesday, but the tough tone and body language were the same.

Still, no one is more aware of Brown’s age than himself.

When Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom introduced the governor and alluded to his age and the calendar, Brown responded: “I’m not sure what that reference to a calendar was. I don’t have a calendar, although I know the days are drawing near.”

Brown previously told Democratic legislative leaders he wouldn’t be joining their crusade against Trump’s policies that threaten to crush California’s — such as weakening environmental protections, deporting immigrants here illegally and killing Obamacare.

But Brown never has been able to shun the national spotlight. And everything political these days is about Trump. The new president has overrun Sacramento like he has everywhere else.

We cannot fall back and give in to the climate deniers. The science is clear. The danger is real.

Gov. Jerry Brown

Brown never mentioned Trump by name, but virtually every sentence of his speech was about the president and a pledge to defend California against his policies.

“Let me be clear,” the governor shouted, referring to Trump’s deportation threats, “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.”

And on his pet issue, global warming: “We cannot fall back and give in to the climate deniers. The science is clear. The danger is real.”

But the most intriguing comment was Brown’s emphatic declaration about a subject where he and Trump have a common interest: rebuilding America with public works.

Updates from Sacramento »

“The president has stated his firm intention to build, and build big,” Brown asserted loudly, jabbing his finger in the air. “And I say, ‘Amen to that, man. Amen to that, brother.’ We are there with you.”

Brown quoted from Trump’s inaugural address: “ ‘We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation.’

“And in this,” the governor continued, “we can work together. [In California] we have roads, we have tunnels, we have railroads and even a dam that the president can help us with.”

Yes, Trump could become Brown’s best friend in Washington concerning job-producing construction projects, particularly the governor’s two most controversial proposals: a $68-billion bullet train from Los Angeles to San Francisco and $15.5-billion twin water tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

California Republican members of Congress — especially House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield — adamantly oppose the bullet train but crave more water from the delta. So you’d think there’d be potential for compromise.

The governor and the Legislature would love to receive more federal money to repair highways and build a large reservoir in the Sacramento Valley, called Sites.

Brown’s speech was rousing and fun. He needed to stand up to Trump and did. But the speech — traditionally a governor’s most important of the year — also needed something else and fell short.

If only for a few paragraphs, it needed to recite the governor’s priorities for the year and try to kick the Legislature into acting on them.

“This morning it is hard for me to keep my thoughts just on California,” Brown explained. Under the new president, he continued, “there are signs that are disturbing.”

Fine. But Brown and the Legislature have been gridlocked for two years trying to negotiate a fuel tax increase to restore California’s crumbling highways. Some legislators were counting on a pep talk from the governor.

There also are other front-burner issues that need gubernatorial leadership, such as a lack of affordable housing and a troubled cap-and-trade system that involves selling licenses to pollute.

Brown said it himself: He’s nearing the end of his governorship.

We’ll assume he won’t run against Trump in 2020, although if he were 10 years younger, you know he would.

But if U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein retires in 2018 at age 85 rather than seek reelection, that’s a plausible option for Brown. And he’d never be burdened with another State of the State speech.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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