Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

The Last of the Burtons? 

They have dominated state and local politics for 50 years. Now, for the first time, the future of their "family business" is in doubt.

Wednesday, Feb 6 2002
It is a wet Saturday morning in Chinatown a few days before Christmas. Shoppers perch in doorways, ducking the rain, clutching bags full of red- and gold-wrapped merchandise. Inside the Cathay House restaurant, atop a McDonald's, hot tea is served to shivering reporters who have gathered to witness a decades-old political ritual.

Each election cycle, San Francisco's politicians troop to Chinatown to, literally, ask for the blessing of the directors of the Chinese Six Companies -- a powerful group of Chinese merchants and financiers whose endorsement influences thousands of Chinese-American voters. The lobby of the Cathay House is a shrine to the Democratic Party, which has ruled San Francisco for half a century. A gallery of photographs on the wall features the restaurant's owner, Glenn Tom, pressing the flesh of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Mayor Willie Brown, Gov. Gray Davis, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Assemblyman John Burton, and a lone Republican: former President George H.W. Bush.

Today, it's show time for the scion of San Francisco's premier political family: Public Defender Kimiko Burton-Cruz. Burton (she drops the "Cruz" in political appearances) is the only child of state Sen. John L. Burton and Michele Burton. Early last year, Mayor Willie Brown appointed Kimiko, whom he has known since birth, to replace veteran Public Defender Jeff Brown, who left to join the state Public Utilities Commission. Her first action in office was to fire Brown's longtime protégé, Jeff Adachi. Now she is trying to win her first election. Her opponent is the man she fired. On March 5, the voters will decide whether Burton or Adachi is worthy of leading the public law office that defends indigent clients.

And so Kimiko has come to Cathay House to carry on the family tradition of her father and her uncle, the late Congressman Phillip Burton, who founded the family's political dynasty in the late 1950s when he became the first politician to successfully tap the emerging electoral power of San Francisco's minority communities. Members of the Chinese Six Companies have been strong supporters of Burton candidates ever since.

A half-dozen men and women gather to listen to Kimiko Burton's warm-up pitch, before she meets later with the full 50-member board of the Chinese Six Companies. She appears nervous, but game. It is no secret, however, that the influential group is poised to endorse Adachi.

Burton, 37, talks about her family's historical commitment to social justice. She lists her background and qualifications and fields questions.

Near the end of the meeting, John Fong, president of the Chinese Six Companies, tells Burton, "Your father, John Burton, has a long-standing relationship with us. Also your Uncle Phil, and your Aunt Sala [who replaced her husband Phil in Congress after his death in 1983]."

"My family has strong connections to Chinatown," Burton agrees. "We were here every weekend. I spend lots of time here. Asians are a model minority."

She explains further, "My grandmother was Asian. I understand saving face and being honorable and not bringing shame to your family."

Fong brings the session to a close: "In older days, Chinese had trouble speaking English, but we are not confined to the Chinatown area now. If there is injustice related to Chinese people, we can talk about it. The Burtons have a long-standing tradition of being friendly to the Chinese community. You are one of them and will be a good district attorney."

"Public defender," Burton corrects.

"We will do what we can to give you support," says Fong.

A few weeks later, the political arm of the Chinese Six Companies, the Chinese American Democratic Club, endorsed Adachi for public defender.

For the first time in decades, being a Burton was not enough for the Chinatown establishment, which likes to back winners. Kimiko's inability to capture the endorsement was as sure a sign as any that the political fortunes of the family -- state Sen. John Burton, Public Defender Kimiko Burton, and her husband, school board member Emilio Cruz -- are at a crossroads. For 50 years, the Burtons have dominated San Francisco's political scene, losing only one election since 1956. The family patriarch, who is on the verge of being termed out of office in Sacramento, has been testing San Francisco's turbulent electoral waters for a possible mayoral run. But the political network of environmental, consumer, minority, welfare, and labor union activists that was melded years ago into a fearsome get-out-the-vote machine by Phil Burton, his brother John, and Willie Brown is rapidly unraveling in the wake of a voter backlash against the unpopular mayor and crony-style politics.

Kimiko Burton is behind in the polls. Her opponent is attacking her as a creature of the "Brown-Burton machine." Her husband is seen as a Brown crony. And her father is proving to be her greatest political liability. Faced with the possibility of leading the family into defeat, unable and unwilling to disown her father, Kimiko says she is prepared to defend her good name by any means necessary. At stake is nothing less than the family business.

Kimiko Burton is extremely proud of her roots: She is ... well ... a Burton Democrat, like so many of her fellow San Franciscans, including her liberal opponent. In her standard stump speech, Burton speaks about her family's commitment to social justice, to peace, to civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, to boycotting grapes when grapes were evil, to the Democratic Party. Privately, she says she grew up despising Republicans; as a youth, she refused to date men who were not pro-choice, anti-death penalty, and Democrats.

She was groomed to lead the Burton political dynamo into the 21st century, raised from birth surrounded by government bureaucrats and power brokers. She went to Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, served four years as an attorney in the Public Defender's Office, and was appointed by Mayor Brown to two city posts: public defender and, before that, head of the Mayor's Criminal Justice Council.

On the campaign trail, she seems to know everyone, hugging and kissing her way through throngs of Democratic Party loyalists, consultants, and hangers-on. She is an unusual hybrid -- a cross between a hippie, a teeny-bopper, and a career politician. She wears her hair waist-length; she is fond of disco-bright red lipstick and fashionable clothing; she is full of contradictions: The daughter of a multimillionaire, she seems to genuinely believe she was raised to be a tribune for the common folk; she vehemently denies the existence of a Burton-Brown machine, while benefiting from its largess; she is forthright about her close ties with her father, but insistent that she is her own person.

Burton claims that she aspires to no higher office than public defender, but one senses in conversation that she desperately wants to continue the family business. For better or worse, she is fixated on her father and his world. She talks about him constantly, on- and offstage. She likes him. She is proud of his accomplishments. She wants him to be proud of her. She says she doesn't even think about what she will do if she loses the election.

Burtons have rarely had to think about losing elections, but this year it is at least in the realm of possibility, to a large extent because Kimiko is a Burton. Like it or not, her proud heritage has become, at once, her greatest political asset and her greatest liability. She is being deftly painted by her opponent as the feckless beneficiary of inherited and undeserved privilege.

"Bring down Willie Brown," orders one Adachi flier. "Senator John Burton is a close political ally of Mayor Brown," declaims another. "Defeat the political machine -- we must get involved."

"We will keep attacking her for her association with her father and Willie Brown; that's our plan," says Adachi's campaign manager.

Kimiko is incensed that Adachi is painting her as a poor little rich girl dependent upon her father's influence for career promotions and campaign money. She considers Adachi's strategy of stringing her up by the family name to be "negative" campaigning.

"It's a sad thing that this race has become so personal. It's just a public defender race! This job is brutal. I have been attacked personally by my opponent and his supporters."

Burton does not seem to see anything remarkable in the fact that the mayor has twice appointed her to prestigious jobs or that she has received $555,000 in campaign contributions from her father's friends and political allies across the country. Her donor list is studded with household names such as Clint Eastwood, Larry Flynt, and Gary Condit, along with a score of congressional representatives and a slew of Wall Street bond traders, corporate lawyers, and Fortune 500 companies. (Adachi has raised $212,000, mostly from local individuals and small businesses.)

Burton explains, "There is an unwritten rule for members of Congress: People with whom you serve will write a check for your child's first political campaign and then it's over. It's a professional courtesy."

"Clint Eastwood has been friends with my father since before I was born," she adds. She goes silent, however, when asked if the unwritten rule also applies to oil companies, insurance lobbyists, and pharmaceutical, banking, and telecommunications firms regularly affected by the actions of the president pro tem of the California Senate, John Burton -- the man who wrote the state's campaign finance "reform" laws.

To Kimiko, there is nothing particularly notable about her father's support. "John Burton has tried to be helpful. I am his child -- that's what parents do."

No pushover, though, Kimiko has hired a political consulting firm to try to deconstruct the negatives in her public image, and, if necessary, smash Adachi. "I am prepared to defend myself if attacked," says Burton.

She will need every ounce of political capital she can command. Adachi's campaign strategy, combined with meticulous grass-roots organizing, has cornered Burton, forcing her campaign into a defensive position.

Despite Burton's pedigree, her political instincts in the clinch are still in question. In public and private discourse, Burton is remarkably unspontaneous. And while she was born to politics, she may not be a born politician. She makes judgment calls that a seasoned politician would not make. For instance, almost every politician named on the March ballot attended an endorsement meeting at the racially diverse District 11 Democratic Club in Ingleside in December. Burton, however, bypassed the meeting to attend a fund-raiser thrown by her father at the Fairmont Hotel, and the club voted to endorse her opponent.

On the other hand, she has consistently picked up endorsements from certain political clubs, such as the Democratic Party and Labor Neighbor, that have received thousands of dollars in donations from the senator's campaign committees in recent months. The senator has also donated thousands of dollars to local community organizations, such as the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, which recently hosted a political event for Kimiko.

It's not everybody, of course, who can command a thousand members of the nation's political, financial, and cultural elite to pony up $500 contributions (the maximum allowed) in an obscure public defender race. Attempting to defuse the money issue, Kimiko Burton has joined Adachi in pledging to abide by a voluntary spending cap of $175,000 on official campaign expenditures. She has refused to pledge not to accept soft money -- supposedly independent expenditures from supporters not formally associated with a campaign -- saying she has no control over how her friends spend their money.

As the campaign has matured, Burton has gradually lost some of the insecurity that characterized her Chinatown performance in December. Since Adachi says the same things over and over, she knows what to expect. She has stripped her public comments of any reference to Mayor Brown. Smarting from Adachi's frequent criticism that she does not work as a trial lawyer, she promises to personally handle a caseload if elected. She wants to be judged on her own record.

Yet her opponents can also mine her record: her appointments by Willie Brown. Mixed reviews for administering several juvenile justice programs. A tenure as public defender that is good or bad depending on whom you talk to. Burton supporter Susan Kaplan, a deputy public defender who sometimes speaks on Burton's behalf on the campaign trail, says her boss is "doing a fabulous job. She's a model leader, she's talented in the courtroom." Other Burton supporters in the office criticize Adachi for his micromanagement style and his obsession with winning in court to the detriment of the interests of some clients. Burton's office detractors, on the other hand, say she is cold and distant, that she avoids trial work, that she plea bargains too much, that office morale has plummeted under her reign, that she did not give me a raise, that she buys cheap file folders. Even Burton's most vocal critics, however, cannot provide any smoking-gun evidence to prove incompetence, malfeasance, or any good reason why she shouldn't be elected public defender.

Burton considers one of her proudest accomplishments to be creating the job of finance director, so that the public defender herself does not have to waste her time on the nitty-gritty of preparing the $13 million budget every year. ("The budget took an inordinate amount of time. I had to call in a lot of favors [at City Hall] last year.") Another accomplishment was "reforming the office to focus on the interests of its clients rather than those of individual lawyers."

"People were going to trial on three-year [plea bargain] offers and exposing clients to life [in prison] -- and some lost."

There is no reason to disbelieve Burton's good intentions. She is obviously sincere when she says that as a "progressive" Democrat she owes society.

"I love being the public defender," she says. "It's the last line of defense to protect the Constitution. We keep the system honest. We make sure everyone has a voice. A society should be judged by how well it treats its least fortunate members."

It is not so much Burton's beliefs, nor her modest but perfectly acceptable record, that pulls her down in the public eye. It is her connection to her father that is causing her trouble. And there is nothing at all she can do about it, as has been apparent from early in the campaign.

The first Adachi-Burton debate was held at the District 3 Democratic Club in upscale North Beach on Jan. 29. Adachi was on the attack from the start, accusing Burton of using soft money to beef up her already buff campaign kitty. Burton kept her cool. She insisted that she be judged on her merits, not her heritage -- at the same time, of course, she claimed, as a merit, her heritage.

She became steely-eyed, though, when an audience member, clearly an Adachi supporter, asked her how she will "erase the baggage of being your father's daughter?" Burton frostily replied: "I am a woman in my own right. If I was John Burton's son, people would not say these things, that I am a daddy's girl. I am not ashamed of being my father's daughter. He does not dictate what I do."

The group voted unanimously to endorse Adachi.

John Burton has one brown eye and one green eye. He talks in short sentences punctuated with "fuck." He's been married and divorced two times. He has one child, "Kimmy." He loves her. He wants to give her a leg up on life.

"She used to visit me in Washington or Sacramento during the summers," says Burton over coffee. "She's been around. She knows a lot of people. I don't give her a lot of advice. I might say, "Go see this person, go see that person.' I sent out letters to people. Called a few people to inform them that she was running."

Burton -- the second most powerful politician in California after Gov. Gray Davis -- is obviously not used to explaining himself to strangers. His gruff exterior barely conceals the volcanic temperament for which he is infamous. It is a testament to just how badly he desires his daughter to win her race that he answers questions about his personal life in multiple sentences.

Burton says he never encouraged his daughter to enter politics. "People tend to get in the, you know, "Janowitz & Sons' grocery store. You know, people tend to get in the family's business or something, no matter where you are."

Things are not going too well with his daughter's campaign, though. "I've seen the polls," Burton says glumly. "It's a horse race."

But Kimiko isn't the only Burton whose future is up in the air. John Burton is two years away from being term-limited out of his job representing eastern San Francisco and southern Marin County in the state Senate. With that deadline looming, Burton has gone to elaborate -- some would say desperate -- means to keep himself in the family business, by concocting Proposition 45, a statewide initiative that will appear on the March ballot. The measure allows an incumbent state legislator to run for an additional term by allowing a small percentage of the voters in his district to sign a petition. Burton admits he has raised the lion's share of the more than $2 million contributed to the effort by a mixed bag of labor unions and large corporations.

Should that measure fail, however (a distinct possibility, according to the polls), Burton will face uncertain prospects. According to several political consultants, Burton would then run for mayor. Willie Brown, who by law cannot serve a third term as mayor, would in turn run for Burton's senate seat, for which he has already raised $1 million.

But could Burton win a mayor's race? One local gossip columnist has speculated that a cold, calculating Burton père is using his daughter as a "canary in the coal mine" to test the appeal of the family name in a potential mayoral run -- a charge the father rejects.

"I wouldn't need my daughter to run for office to see whether or not I could be elected mayor," he says irritatedly. But if Kimiko loses her race because of her association with her dad, it would certainly give John Burton pause.

Then there is the Newsom factor. Burton's protégé and business partner, Supervisor Gavin Newsom, is gearing up for a mayoral run in 2003. Newsom says he will "never" run against his mentor.

"If I ran, I wouldn't be running against him then," Burton smiles. He takes a swipe at Newsom's much-ballyhooed homeless plan. "I don't think you solve the homeless problem by punishing the homeless."

Burton, who will be 70 on his next birthday, says he will figure out his future, including a potential run for mayor, if Prop. 45 fails in March. "If I got out of office, I would get involved in the homeless issue," he offers, clearly not relishing that prospect.

For all the uncertainty surrounding his and Kimiko's plans, Burton insists that the family is not at a critical turning point, nor is Kimiko's race a test of the Burton name. "We are not at a crossroads," he says succinctly. "I do not know about my political future. Kim's race has nothing to do with anything else."

He will admit that Kimiko's family and political connections haven't always been a plus. "Sure a certain segment of the population does not like the mayor. They equate him with me. They equate Kim with me."

But he denies that her fortunes in the election will say anything about the waxing or waning of the famed Burton-Brown machine. In fact, he says, there is no monolithic political machine in San Francisco; just a lot of factions competing to run the Democratic Party apparatus.

"What's a machine? Adachi and [Supervisor] Matt [Gonzalez] and [Supervisor] Tommy [Ammiano]? There's never been a Brown-Burton machine. They used to lay it on my brother, Phillip. All it is, you had people that supported people. When my brother was alive there weren't six jobs you could give anybody."

Denying the existence of such a machine is part of the family line. Even Kimiko's husband, Emilio Cruz, who has been appointed to several jobs by Mayor Brown (most recently to serve out the term of a school board member who resigned), scoffs at the notion.

"I grew up in Chicago," Cruz says. "Under the Daly machine, no opposition was tolerated. There wasn't a strike for 22 years. San Francisco is nothing like that. There is no iron fist. There are networks -- political, business, and family networks.

"Politics in this city is personal. It's all about whom you know. If "cronyism' is hiring someone you know, then are you stuck hiring only people you don't know? If you are around for 65 years, you know a lot of people; there is an intrinsic lack of logic in the argument against cronyism."

By any name, the Burtons and Willie Brown have maintained an impressive grip on local and state politics since 1956, when John's brother Phillip won an Assembly seat from San Francisco. His victory marked the end of the line for the city's political patronage machine, which at that time was an adjunct of the Archdiocese of the Catholic Church. According to the late John Jacobs' 1995 biography of Phil Burton, A Rage for Justice, "The Church, via Catholic schools that placed graduates, many of them orphans, controlled most of the jobs in the police and fire departments, public works, parks and recreation, the municipal railway, and the post office."

Phil Burton observed that the demographics of San Francisco, which in 1940 had been 95 percent white, were rapidly changing. Basing himself in the burgeoning Chinese and black communities, with strong support from newly arising janitorial and government employee labor unions, Burton became a working-class hero. In 1964, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and his protégé, Willie Brown, a young defense attorney, won an Assembly seat from a district in the city center. John Burton slipped into his brother's vacant Assembly seat, subsequently joining Phil in Congress in 1974. Brown went on to rule the Assembly for 14 years as speaker.

An alcoholic, self-destructive, verbally abusive man, Phil Burton nevertheless accomplished some amazing feats of legislative legerdemain in the realms of health care, welfare, labor relations, and protection of the environment. He lived by the credo that his ends justified his means. He cut practical deals with his supposed ideological enemies, such as Southern congressmen, trading tobacco and cotton subsidies for health care for coal miners. He became a ruthless gerrymanderer -- periodically redrawing California's election districts into fantastic shapes that favored himself, his brother, and his allies.

While powerful at the state level, the historically fused Burton-Brown alliance was of lesser influence in San Francisco, until Brown became mayor in 1995. Mayor George Moscone was in the Burton camp, but Mayors Jack Shelley, Joseph Alioto, Dianne Feinstein, Art Agnos, and Frank Jordan were relatively independent from the Burtons and Brown. In recent years, the Brown-Burton-Pelosi loyalists who have dominated the local Democratic Party apparatus have regularly picked and funded candidates to run for office in San Francisco, such as Assessor Doris Ward, and former Supervisors Michael Yaki, Amos Brown, and Sue Bierman. Since 1996, too, Mayor Brown has created thousands of new city positions and filled many of them with his supporters -- including Kimiko Burton and Emilio Cruz.

John Burton was a hell-raiser while his paternalistic brother was alive. He resigned from Congress right before Phil died, citing problems with drug and alcohol addiction. In 1988, he made a comeback and was, once again, elected to the Assembly. Term-limited out in 1996, he won a state Senate seat. In 1998, he was elected president pro tempore by his colleagues, a job that he describes as "being in charge of the Senate."

Being in charge means raising millions of campaign dollars every year from thousands of lobbyists and businesspeople. Taking campaign donations from, and owning stock in, companies that do business with the Legislature -- as Burton does -- is not illegal, though it might suggest at least a conflict of interest. The possible public perception of de facto conflicts of interest does not seem to concern Burton, who has been known to charge as much as $43,000 for a single phone call on behalf of a developer.

His brow beetles and his voice thunders when the question is raised. "If something looked like a conflict of interest, I would recuse myself. I can't remember ever recusing myself. People can criticize what they want. I want people to criticize my voting record. If somebody for whatever reason gives me money that is actually against their best interest, I would assume that's their problem. I don't give a fuck."

Like it or not, the public's perception of Burton's integrity is his problem. Provided, of course, he wants to keep the family business alive and out of the hands of a new generation of politicians who, like Adachi, owe him nothing.

"I did not raise her to be a politician," says Michele Burton, Kimiko's mother. "Obviously she had that influence in her life from her dad."

John and Michele divorced nearly three decades ago. She never remarried. She works as a health care consultant out of her home on Potrero Hill. John has a house nearby. Kimiko and Emilio live down the street. Michele volunteered to be interviewed because she is ticked off at the "negativity" issuing from the Adachi camp.

She talks about how Kim was raised in a politically progressive atmosphere: taught to march for peace, taught not to eat grapes. She got the first clue that her daughter wanted to be a politician when Kimiko was appointed as public defender last year.

"I had been in denial before that," she laughs. "I was the only person surprised."

"Our electoral process is better than a dictatorship," she muses. "But it's not something I like to see people I love go through."

Campaigns, she says, bring out the mean spirit in people. Campaigns invade privacy. She is mad that Adachi stole the Web domain name "" (A visitor to that site is automatically linked to a newspaper article describing Kimiko's appointment by the mayor and her firing of Adachi.)

Michele does not understand why being associated with Willie Brown and John Burton is seen as a bad thing for her daughter.

"Kimiko is lucky to have John in her corner. She is proud of him and vice versa."

Politics has, at least indirectly, shaped the course of Michele's life. And now her only daughter has put herself in harm's way -- smack in the middle of a negative campaign that, Michele believes, is bound to get messy.

"Maybe Jeff Adachi hasn't even started. It's hard. He's throwing the Willie Brown thing at her. He's throwing the John Burton thing at her. And the campaign is just gearing up.

"Jeff Adachi is trying to turn into liabilities what I think are advantages," Michele says. "What wouldn't he give to have John Burton as a father!"

About The Author

Peter Byrne


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"