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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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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."

About The Author

Peter Byrne

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