SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday decried a political tone in the state Capitol and across the nation that he says is more hostile than when he was California governor from 1975 to 1983.
Brown, a Democrat, said the nation has strayed from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of equality and civility.
"What is the vision today? The vision is divisiveness," Brown told a gathering of black state lawmakers in Sacramento. "I mean, I know politics is always negative ... but the attacks on President Obama go beyond what is usual."
Brown, California's Democratic governor, urged people in the state and elsewhere to strike a less polarizing tone as the country celebrates the life of the slain civil rights leader.
His remark drew loud applause from several hundred people gathered for the breakfast.
Campaigning for last year's midterm elections was marked in part by angry protests against the president and what the protesters saw as an overreaching by the federal government under Obama's presidency. Some rallies included racist caricatures of Obama, while other opponents filed legal challenges to his citizenship. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal from a lawyer challenging the citizenship.
Brown, who sought the Democratic nomination for president three times, said King faced institutionalized segregation yet was able to embolden change — something "we're facing now" as the state struggles with high dropout rates and a growing prison system.
"We have a set pattern of practices and we're all going along with it, and yet we know the results are not good in terms of what's happening to poor kids, what's happening to those that drop out of school, what happens to this huge self-replicating prison system, and growing inequity, the fact that income is moving up to the few," he said.
Brown said California should be focused not on handing out tax breaks to the wealthy but investing in schools and roads — moves that benefit society as a whole. He said the growing hostility toward government services — fueled by some television and radio talk show hosts — has created an imbalance against those public investments.
"As I turn on that channel, you know the one I'm talking about, to see what they're talking about, there's really strange stuff," Brown said. "I mean, you're not going to have an America if we just divide it down the middle and we polarize and scapegoat."
Brown said it's even become taboo to talk about the income gap, in which most of the nation's wealth lies with a relative few. During his gubernatorial campaign last year, he criticized Republican opponent Meg Whitman for wanting to eliminate the capital gains tax, a move that would have benefited wealthy individuals.
Whitman is the billionaire former chief executive of eBay.
"You can't even mention that because if you do, it means you're engaging in class warfare," Brown said.
Brown called for limiting tax breaks that allow people to "go buy one of those flat-screen TVs that's made in China" and instead focus on investing in schools, universities and infrastructure.
"The fact is we need to have a balance, and right now the balance is tilting against the common purpose that holds us all together," Brown said.
He described a need for Republicans and Democrats to work together as he faces a $25.4 billion budget gap. On Thursday he reaffirmed former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's order giving lawmakers 45 days to deal with the fiscal crisis.
Earlier this month, Brown released his plan to balance the state's deficit over the next 18 months. He called for a combination of spending cuts, extensions of tax hikes that are due to expire this year and tax-law changes.
He wants a special election in June so voters can decide whether to extend increases in the sales, income and vehicle taxes for five years, but Republican legislative leaders immediately said they would oppose any effort to place the question on the ballot.
Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Oakland, a member of the California Legislative Black Caucus, said Brown struck the right tone, speaking honestly about the challenges facing the state and the nation. He noted that the last time Brown was governor, he signed legislation making King's birthday a holiday in California.
"I have to say that that national debate has become more confrontational; there's no question in my mind about that. And it has also become too campaign-oriented," Swanson said. "One of the things I like about him is he speaks candidly and truthfully about the way he feels, and I find that truly refreshing."