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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
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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.

About The Author

Peter Byrne

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