California Democratic Heavyweight John Burton Exiting the Political Stage

John Burton, speaks at a conference called, 'Our democracy after 9/11: can we save it?' on Feb. 17, 2002 in Los Angeles. ( J. Emilio Flores/Getty Images)

The California Democratic Party will undergo a historic transition in Sacramento this weekend, when its legendary chairman, John Burton, steps down after eight years as party chair.

Burton has always been a little rough around the edges.

"I first met John Burton in 1972," recalled Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. "It was during the McGovern presidential campaign. And I went over to introduce myself to him. And he completely ignored me. I think he thought I wasn’t liberal enough," she said, laughing. "I don't know what it was, but he completely dismissed me."

Burton, who at that time was in the state Assembly, remembers it differently.

"No, I talked to her," Burton insisted, a little defensively. "But I really got to know her when she ran for Congress in 1987."

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By then, Pelosi was like family to the Burtons, and what became known as a "death bed endorsement" of Pelosi by Phillip Burton's widow Sala helped propel her to victory after Sala Burton died.

California Democrats Gather for Convention as John Burton Says Goodbye

California Democrats Gather for Convention as John Burton Says Goodbye

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The Burtons -- John and his late brother Phillip -- are like political royalty in San Francisco's Democratic Party circles. They, along with Willie Brown and later Pelosi, engineered what became known by critics as "the Burton Machine."

Former Assembly speaker and San Francisco mayor Willie Brown met John Burton in 1951 when both were freshmen college students at San Francisco State University.

"We were in the same ROTC unit, believe it or not, probably avoiding the draft," Brown recalled with a chuckle recently. "We were alphabetically lined up the first day. And it's Brown, Burton. So we were almost soul brothers from day one."

Brown said the two always thought of themselves as "disrupters of everything. We were trying to keep other people from destroying things," like the Fillmore neighborhood, which was long eyed by the city's Redevelopment Agency.

Brown recalled that, even back then, Burton was tight with progressive activists.

"Through the labor movement they knew him," Brown said. "Through the left wing socialist, communist movement they knew him. Longshoremen and Harry Bridges’ crowd. So John was very much exposed in every way."

Willie Brown and John Burton collaborated on this campaign flier when Burton ran unsuccessfully for a state Senate seat in 1967.
Willie Brown and John Burton collaborated on this campaign flier when Burton ran unsuccessfully for a state Senate seat in 1967. (CSU Sacramento Archives)

John Burton has spent four decades in California politics -- starting in the state Assembly in the mid-1960s, moving then to Congress, back to the Assembly and then to the state Senate. Gov. Jerry Brown said no matter where he was, Burton always had the same goal.

"He was always there in the Legislature and he was pushing against more conservative people," Gov. Brown said.

Burton didn't always see eye to eye with Jerry Brown. In fact, when Brown chaired the California Democratic Party, Burton called for him to resign after the party lost the 1990 gubernatorial election. But time has a way of softening those differences.

"He’s a very colorful, imaginative person who really cares a lot," Brown told me recently over a plate of lox and dried apricots. "He cares for people who don’t have the advantages -- he's really an old-fashioned Democrat."

California Republican Party Chair Jim Brulte served in the state Senate with Burton and said he was willing to work with Republicans -- to an extent.

"John was very clear," Brulte said. "If I need Republican votes I’ll talk to you. And if I don’t, I won’t. I thought 'OK, I can deal with that.'"

John Burton with then Governor-Elect Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003.
John Burton with then Governor-Elect Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

The way Willie Brown tells it, Burton palled around with Republicans, at least back when the GOP had power in Sacramento. Brown remembers Burton's outings to San Francisco with Republican legislators.

"John was really close to those guys," Brown said. "And they’d come into the city and John would take them to the Tenderloin or some other place. Because John had connections in those days," Brown said, laughing at the implication.

In Sacramento, Burton was known for being blunt and scrappy, dropping f-bombs on a regular basis. Today, at age 84, he’s a bit frail. But he clearly relishes the impact he had.

"When I left Sacramento, poor people, old, blind, disabled and women on what they used to call welfare had more money than they had when I came in," Burton said. "I think the important thing is if you're in a position of power or influence or whatever I had or anybody has -- you take care of those who ain't got it, who don't have the power."

In 1974, Burton followed his brother Phil to Congress. But addiction to drugs forced him to give up his Congressional seat in the early '80s.

"When I smoked I was two packs a day," Burton said recently. "I just have an addictive personality."

Burton eventually got his addiction under control. But he never lost his addiction to helping those who were vulnerable, especially foster care children.

"If I was dumped like they were, there’s no doubt in my mind I woulda been in jail somewhere," he said. "Just no doubt."

After leaving the Legislature in 2005, Burton created John Burton Advocates for Youth, a foundation that helps lobby on behalf of young people.

Executive Director Amy Lemley credited Burton with helping to pass AB 12 in 2010, which ultimately extended services to foster care youth beyond ages 18 to 21. It enabled them to stabilize their lives as they entered college or the workforce.

"For homeless youth and foster youth to have an advocate like John Burton in their corner has made it possible to achieve things that we never would have been able to do otherwise," Lemley said.

As Burton prepares to step down as chair of the California Democratic Party this weekend, he leaves behind an operation that helped Democrats win two-thirds majorities in the state Assembly and Senate, along with every statewide office. But it's also still roiled by the divide between the party's most liberal members and those who want to stay the course.

That split is playing out in the race to replace Burton. Party insider Eric Bauman from Los Angeles was long considered a shoo-in to replace Burton, but in recent weeks Kimberly Ellis, an African-American woman with support from the Sanders wing of the party, appears to be closing in.

For his part, Burton hopes to be remembered this way. "You know fighting for people and being able to win or improve their lives -- for me makes all the bullshit worth it," he said.

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