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2017 California Democratic Party convention

California Democrats say farewell to party leader John Burton. To no one's surprise, he responded with profanity

Outgoing California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton is seen at the California Democratic State Convention in Sacramento on May 19. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Outgoing California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton is seen at the California Democratic State Convention in Sacramento on May 19. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

California Democrats said farewell to chairman John Burton on Saturday, and John Burton said farewell to Democrats, in his usual fashion.

Most of it cannot be printed.

Burton, a fixture in state Democratic politics for half a century even before he took the party’s top position eight years ago, offered up an expletive-speckled thank you to party members that was characteristic of his tenure. After a crowd of Democrats, one after another, lauded him in speeches and a video shown to delegates in Sacramento’s convention center, Burton came to the microphone.

“Holy ... ,” he said.

It has been a rocky convention for Burton so far. On Friday night, his welcoming remarks to delegates were interrupted by shouts and chants from protesters demanding that party members back a state measure that would provide healthcare for all. (Not surprisingly, Burton, 84, gave back with vigor.)

Burton opened the general session Saturday with what seemed to be an effort to tamp down dissent, leading delegates in a chant supporting universal healthcare. He said he hoped that would forestall protests against others this weekend.

Many of those who jeered Burton were born well after he helped drive protests against the Vietnam War and for farm workers in the Central Valley, and spent decades seeking aid for the homeless and other needy Californians. The farewell that came shortly after the session’s opening provided something of a reminder of Burton’s legacy and his inimitable, if profane, style. It was a word even friends used to describe him in their remarks.

“He should walk around with a T-shirt with a warning label on it,” Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom said in the video, which featured nearly every prominent California Democrat for the last several decades.

But they also spoke of his years of work on behalf of liberal policies. Onstage with Burton on Saturday were officeholders he’s plucked from anonymity and helped propel into office, and politicians who had benefited from his protection in the 35 years he served in the House, state Assembly and state Senate.

Former state Sen. Martha Escutia broke into tears as Burton stood behind her.

“John was the safety net I never had growing up,” she said, then broke into a song of affection in Spanish.

Burton, never at a loss for words, seemed to have almost reached that point when it was his turn.

“I’m the man who made Martha Escutia cry,” he said with visible surprise. “She’s one of the toughest people I’ve ever known in my life.”

Burton seemed near tears himself as he recounted walking as a child in his native San Francisco with his father, who doled out whatever money he had to the poor.

When young John asked why, Burton recalled, “He put his finger in my face and told me he never every wanted me to walk past some guy in bad circumstances without leaving something in the cup.

“That’s what Democrats do. …There’s a lot of people out there that if we don’t fight for them, nobody’s going to fight for them because they don’t have any power,” he said.

Burton regained his typically cantankerous posture when he closed his farewell by addressing President Trump — bluntly, directly and defiantly.

“Now, all together,” he told the delegates, preparing to hurl an F-bomb. “[Expletive] Donald Trump.”

He raised both middle fingers toward the crowd.

For a moment, protests were forgotten, and the audience roared.

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