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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.

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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