SACRAMENTO -- The two sides of Gov. Jerry Brown's political persona have come into clear view this month. Two weeks ago, it was the austere and pragmatic Brown, as he released his slash-away state budget.
But on Wednesday, during his State of the State address in the Assembly chamber, he gave a glimpse of his idealistic, visionary side, providing a full-throated defense of California's high-speed rail plan despite the pummeling it's taken in recent months.
Brown took on critics in his most forceful language to date, noting that naysayers have been wrong about some of the great infrastructure projects of the past.
"The Central Valley Water Project was called a 'fantastic dream' that 'will not work,' " he said. "The master plan for the interstate highway system in 1939 was derided as 'New Deal jitterbug economics.' In 1966, then-Mayor (Wallace) Johnson of Berkeley called BART a 'billion-dollar potential fiasco.'
"Similarly, the Panama Canal was for years thought to be impractical, and Benjamin Disraeli himself said of the Suez Canal: 'Totally impossible to be carried out.' The critics were wrong then, and they're wrong now.''
Brown, in his second State of the State address since returning as governor after a 28-year hiatus, also urged the Legislature to tackle other momentous changes such as pension reform and a new water-infrastructure project. And he made his case for new taxes while insisting that additional budget cuts are necessary.
A blend of the tough, the unpopular and the lofty are what's needed to build "confidence in California as a place to invest and realize one's dreams," he said.
Brown has now put himself on the line by taking full possession of high-speed rail, said Larry Gerston, a San Jose State political science professor, given the growing chorus of critics and public disaffection over a project whose cost estimates tripled this year from the $33 billion price tag voters approved in 2008.
"It intrigued me that he put all his marbles behind high-speed rail and that he's willing to spend political capital on it," Gerston said. "These big infrastructure projects do provide a whole bunch of jobs, but it would also put California back on the map. It's almost a status thing as much as it is a transportation thing, a way that Californians can say: Yes, California is back on top."
State Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, called Brown's comments "very bold" in the way he appealed to legislators to "move forward with something that people may not see now how they benefit in the future."
But the Democratic governor has faced calls to scrap high-speed rail from other members of his own party, so he'll have to quickly come up with a revised business plan that restores their confidence, Capitol observers said. Brown is seeking legislative approval for $2.7 billion, to be matched with federal dollars, to begin construction of the first 130 miles of tracks in the Central Valley.
The governor's newly appointed chairman of the high-speed rail authority, Dan Richard, is expected to submit the revised plan "within weeks," meaning that construction could start by the end of the year, Brown said.
"Those who believe that California is in decline will naturally shrink back from such a strenuous undertaking," said Brown, who signed legislation to study high-speed rail as governor 30 years ago. "I understand that feeling, but I don't share it because I know this state and the spirit of the people who choose to live here."
Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Redding, dismissed the governor's high-speed rail ambitions as "unrealistic" and "unjustified."
In his previous two stints as governor, Brown presided over what he called the "era of limits," though he was also known for ideas before his time, such as the satellite communications system he proposed that earned him the "Gov. Moonbeam" moniker.
But the sweep of ideas -- from a new Central Valley water project to a $100 billion-plus high-speed rail project -- is a departure for a man who prides himself on his fiscal conservatism, said Ethan Rarick, director of the Robert T. Matsui Center on Politics and Public Service at UC Berkeley.
"This was more visionary than I've seen Jerry be before," said Rarick, the author of "California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown," the current governor's father, who was California's governor through most of the '60s and was known for his big public-works projects.
"I don't think I've seen him embrace big proposals quite to this degree," Rarick said. "It has faint echoes of his father."
The governor invoked his dad in asking for action on a plan to fix the state's water infrastructure. The Legislature must decide if it wants to place an $11 billion bond measure -- or a less expensive version -- on the November ballot.
"This is something my father worked on and then I worked on -- decades ago," he said. "We know more now and are committed to the dual goals of restoring the Delta ecosystem and ensuring a reliable water supply."
Brown also urged legislators to take up his 12-point pension reform, saying it's imperative to take action to forestall a potential disaster. And Brown cast his pursuit of a tax hike -- alongside $5 billion in added budget cuts -- as a way to not only prop up schools and public safety but also to provide hope.
"Contrary to those critics who fantasize that California is a failed state," he said, "I see unspent potential and incredible opportunity."
Reacting to Brown's speech, Republicans largely focused their fire on Brown's budding tax-initiative campaign, which got the green light from Attorney General Kamala Harris on Wednesday to begin collecting signatures to put a measure on the November ballot. Brown is proposing to raise the sales tax by a half-cent and income taxes on individuals who make $250,000 or more. If voters reject the measure, schools would be in line for nearly $5 billion more in cuts.
"The governor's vision is to tax people more," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar.
Legislative Democrats, however, heaped praise on Brown for his unabashed support for a tax increase.
"We're in a tough economy, but it's the wrong time to disinvest in the future," said Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro.
Steven Harmon covers the Capitol. Contact him at 916-441-2101.