SACRAMENTO — In a wide-ranging defense of California — and a rebuke of President Donald Trump and the Republican-held Congress — Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday rallied this bulwark of the Democratic Party to push forward on climate change, immigration and high-speed rail, signaling another year of conflict between Washington and the nation’s most populous state.
Delivering his final State of the State address, Brown cast California as a more enlightened alternative to “the poison in our politics” and to “the abysmal approval ratings given to the U.S. Congress.”
He called for the state to complete a massive high-speed rail project reviled by many Republicans in Washington, and to put 5 million zero-emission vehicles on California roads by 2030.
“Despite what is widely believed by some of the most powerful people in Washington, the science of climate change is not in doubt,” the Democratic governor told a joint session of the Legislature here. “All nations agree except one, and that is solely because of one man: our current president.”
Brown said, “Here in California, we follow a different path.”
Brown and the state’s heavy bench of Democratic officeholders have feuded with Trump since the Republican president took office last year. But tensions heightened this month, with the Trump administration threatening to undermine the state’s marijuana market, proposing oil drilling off the California coast and vowing to dramatically increase immigration enforcement in the state.
On Wednesday, the state attorney general, Xavier Becerra, filed litigation challenging the Trump administration’s repeal of an Obama-era hydraulic fracturing regulation, while Trump took aim at San Francisco and other sanctuary cities that he said are the “best friend of gangs and cartels like MS-13.”
While relatively cautious in his criticism of Trump, Brown’s agenda — climate change, health care, defending a state gas tax increase — stands starkly at odds with the White House, and the governor cut at Trump implicitly.
Recalling headlines that derided California as “ungovernable” and “doomed” when Brown inherited a yawning budget deficit when he took office in 2011, Brown said, “Even today, you will find critics who claim the California dream is dead. But I’m used to that.”
Now California enjoys a budget surplus, and Brown pointed to the state’s approval of a water bond, a budget reserve and a cap-and-trade extension, among other legislative achievements, as evidence “that some American governments actually can get stuff done.”
Heralding crowds that participated in Women’s March events this month and activists who champion the cause of undocumented young people, Brown said, “In all this, California was in the forefront, showing the way.”
In a reflective address — at nearly 30 minutes, unusually long for Brown — the governor acknowledged Trump’s approval of “substantial assistance” in disaster aid following California’s devastating wildfires and mudslides.
But Brown excoriated the Republican majority in Washington for its attempt to undo health care legislation on which California relies for billions of dollars in federal aid.
“Thank God for John McCain, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins,” he said. “Along with the Democrats, they prevailed and protected health care for tens of millions of Americans.”
For Brown, a fourth-term governor who abandoned his own presidential ambitions after running three times for the White House, the speech served as a reminder of the accomplishments of his final terms, but also the uncertainty of his legacy as he prepares to leave office in January 2019.
Brown is almost sure to be replaced by a Democrat keeping with his positions on climate change and immigration. But as Brown prepares to exit public life, California’s poverty rate remains highest in the nation when adjusted for the cost of living, the state’s tax system relies heavily on its top earners, a major source of volatility. Brown’s two signature infrastructure initiatives — building high-speed rail and a water conveyance system — are also mired in uncertainty, with multi-billion price tags and fierce political opposition to both projects.
Earlier this month, California officials said the estimated cost of an initial leg of the project in California’s Central Valley had alone climbed $2.8 billion, throwing into doubt the state’s cost estimate for the overall project of about $64 billion. The project will almost certainly require additional federal money, which proponents acknowledge is unlikely while Republicans control the House.
On Thursday, Brown said, “I make no bones about it. I like trains, and I like high-speed trains even better.”
“Yes, it costs a lot of money,” he said. “But it’s still cheaper and more convenient than expanding airports, which nobody wants to do, and building new freeways.”
Brown was flanked on stage by two of several Democrats bidding to succeed him. Many of those candidates, including the frontrunner, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, have been more strident than Brown in their rhetoric deriding Trump, suggesting animosity between the state and Washington may only intensify.
Following Brown’s remarks, Newsom said Brown’s speech underscored the challenges ahead for California leaders of the next generation.
“It’s a baton to be passed,’’ he said, one that emphasizes “success is not a definition — it’s a direction.”
Brown, governor before from 1975 to 1983, drew loud applause in the Assembly chambers, and even Republicans praised him for his fiscal moderation. But Republican Assemblywoman Catharine Baker said she was concerned “to see him double down on high speed rail,’’ while Republican Assembly Leader Brian Dahle said Brown failed to adequately address the rising cost of living in the state.
“Some people are spending 50 percent of their pay on rent,” Dahle said. With increasing taxes, Dahle said, “they’re raising revenues off the back of people here.”
Yet Republicans represent a small minority in the California Legislature and have little influence in state politics. And Brown, with a favorable approval rating and millions of dollars remaining in his campaign war-chest, has avoided lame-duck treatment entering his final year. He pledged to “do everything in my power” to defeat an effort to repeal a gas tax increase.
Asked as he left the lectern what his father, the late Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, would say about his final speech, Brown said, “Persistence.”
Then asked if he would run for office again, Brown — who has said before that he will not run for president in 2020 — offered a familiar quip.
“You never know,” the 79-year-old said. “Never say never.”