Opinion: John Burton, formerly of Washington, Sacramento, seeks new job

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John Burton, the former California Senate leader and congressman, has established a committee to raise money for his run for California Democratic Party chairman.

Burton filed the papers creating Burton for Democratic Party Chair with the Internal Revenue Service last week. He would bring to the post one of the key qualifications -- a proven ability to raise lots of money. Burton expects to raise $200,000 for the campaign, perhaps more.


Burton is a former congressman from San Francisco who, along with his late brother, Phillip Burton, created perhaps the most influential political organizations that California has ever seen. Their legacy includes Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi.

“This is a very important election coming up with Barbara’s election, plus a Democratic governor,’ Burton said, explaining his decision to run to replace Art Torres, who is stepping down after 11 years in the post. ‘This election has proved that we have to start trying to take back the red counties.”

Burton, who turns 76 next month, remains active, regularly visiting Sacramento from his hometown of San Francisco. He is jumping into the fray because, he said, “it is what I do.”

Burton’s 10-year stint in Congress was cut short in 1974 because of admitted drug and alcohol use. He became sober and.... his career in 1988, winning an Assembly seat and becoming lieutenant to his longtime friend Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

Burton became one of the most powerful lawmakers ever to hold the position of California Senate president pro tem, putting his stamp on major pieces including campaign finance regulation and mental healthcare.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger often laments Burton’s departure.

Although he was forced by term limits to retire in 2004, Burton remains influential. Boxer, a onetime aide to John Burton, has endorsed him, as has Pelosi. Pelosi rose within the Burton organization and succeeded Phil Burton’s widow, Rep. Sala Burton, for her San Francisco congressional seat.

Burton’s endorsements include 25 Democratic members of Congress from California. George Miller, Joe Baca, Mike Thompson, Lois Capps, Howard Berman and Henry Waxman are among his supporters.

He is backed by 16 state senators including incoming Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, along with 16 Assembly members, nine incoming state legislators, union leaders, environmentalists and the trial attorneys’ organization the Consumer Attorneys for California.


Burton’s foes include labor lobbyist Alexandra Rooker and Los Angeles County Democratic Chairman Eric Bauman. The election, to be decided by party delegates and insiders, will be held in April.

Said Bauman, who has been L.A. County’s chairman since 2000: “John without a doubt is formidable.”

--Dan Morain

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--Photos by Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times