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Talmage Burke, Institution : Alhambra’s Mayor Is Habit-Forming

Times Staff Writer

Mayor Talmage V. Burke, who has been on the City Council for more than 32 years, is a traditionalist who undertakes change reluctantly.

He has lived in the same house since 1927. He did not get married until he was 40 years old. He has 32 years of perfect attendance at Rotary Club meetings. And he vacations at the same spot every year.

“I’ve been going to Hawaii for 20 summers now,” said Burke, 67, a probate attorney, “and I always stay at the same hotel. I’m just a creature of habit.”

It has been Burke’s habit to run for office and it has been the voters’ habit to elect him. When Burke won his first election, in 1952, Harry S. Truman was President. Last November, Alhambra voters gave Burke his ninth four-year term.

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Although no one keeps state records of councilmanic service, Kim Chudoba, a research assistant with the League of California Cities, said Burke may well be the state’s senior council member. “We aren’t aware of anyone who has served any longer,” Chudoba said, and Burke’s closest competition seems to be a Santa Fe Springs councilwoman who has been in office since 1957.

Burke, like his colleagues on the council, receives $50 a month for his service. The councilman chosen as mayor--the office rotates every nine months--earns an extra $25 a month. Burke is in his 10th term as mayor.

Warner Jenkins, longtime editor of the Alhambra Post-Advocate, said Burke has survived in office because “he wears well. He has mastered the art of compromise.” And, Jenkins said, “he’s the smartest cookie on the Alhambra City Council.”

Despite his repeated success at the polls, Burke takes nothing for granted. He paid political consultant George Pla $10,000 for help in the last municipal election even though Pla said he never understood why Burke worried about the outcome. Burke, who does not take campaign contributions, spent $26,000 of his own money in easily beating two opponents, who together spent less

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than $3,500.

In campaigning, Burke said, “I kind of hold myself out on this basis: I’ve been here for a long time. I’ve met so many of you (voters) in various walks of life. We’ve all been in the vineyard together so far as community service and civic activity and all. You know what my record has been. You know my family before me. And would you rather have someone like that or someone who walks in off the street with absolutely no background whatever?”

When Burke talks about community service or another favorite topic, the virtues of Alhambra, listeners may react cynically--as he did initially, Pla said--but Burke “really believes it. And it’s refreshing to find a public official who is so committed to serving his community.”

Burke is not without detractors. Some council watchers say he tends to sit on the fence, ducking controversy and taking a firm position only after a consensus develops and the political risk abates.

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And Burke himself concedes that some people believe he has been in office too long and should step aside for someone with new ideas. Burke said one of his council colleagues who held that view drafted a Charter amendment in 1976 to limit council members to three terms. Burke suggested exempting incumbents and the amendment was approved by voters in that form. Since Burke is the only incumbent from those days who is still in office, he is now the only person in the city eligible to serve more than three terms.

Burke said he plans to keep running for office until voters choose someone else.

“As long as the public wants me to stay, I will,” he said.

Among his proudest accomplishments on the council, Burke said, have been the improvement of city revenue through industrial and commercial redevelopment and the improvement of traffic flow by lowering railroad tracks through town.

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City Manager Kevin Murphy said Burke is the sort of councilman every city manager hopes for because he never drops by City Hall without making an appointment first and he always works through the city manager’s office, instead of taking concerns directly to other employees.

The mayor’s political career was inspired by his father, Montivel A. Burke, who served on the Alhambra school board in the 1930s, the City Council in the 1940s and the state Assembly from 1945 to 1962. For several months in 1945, the elder Burke served simultaneously as mayor and assemblyman.

Talmage Burke said his father’s life was rich in adventure and achievement. He broke horses on a Wyoming ranch, worked in the oil fields near Bakersfield and started an industrial bank in Alhambra before entering politics. Talmage Burke recalls his father as a quiet, introverted man who was not easily impressed.

At the age of 39, Talmage was still living at home with his parents and burst into the house one day with the news that he, like his father before him, had been named mayor of Alhambra.

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“I was so excited,” Burke recalled. “I said, ‘I’m going to be the best mayor this town ever had.’ My father never even looked up from his plate and, real quiet, said, ‘Second best.’ ”

Talmage had hoped to succeed his father, the dean of Assembly Republicans, when he retired from the Assembly in 1962. But his chances evaporated when Democrats reapportioned Assembly districts, taking care to incorporate the Burke home in a block-wide sliver attached to a solidly Democratic district that extended through El Sereno, Chinatown, Silver Lake and the Hollywood area.

Burke said the district offered no hope to a Republican like himself. No other opportunities presented themselves, so Burke has stuck to city politics.

The house where he resides was built by his father in 1927 and the family has lived at the same address, on Olive Street, just north of Main Street, since 1920. Today, Burke not only owns the house, but 11 neighboring lots and other rental property as well.

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After getting both his bachelor’s and law degrees from USC and serving as a research attorney for a federal judge, Burke entered private law practice in Alhambra. He was appointed to the city Civil Service Commission in 1948 and became city prosecutor in 1950. He was appointed to fill a City Council vacancy in early 1952 and won his first election six months later.

Burke did not marry until he was 40, and then chose as his bride a woman half his age, much to the surprise of friends.

“She was one of those good, quiet homemaker types,” Burke said. “I didn’t want a socialite to advance my cause because I was already there. I was mayor at the time and I was already established in practice. I wanted somebody who would like their home so much they would be willing to let me go out five nights a week (to civic events) and not be after me like a lot of wives . . . (saying) ‘Oh, are you gone again?’ ”

The marriage of Talmage and Lisa Burke has lasted 27 years and produced two children, Karen, 24, a nurse who is married and living in Utah, and Montivel A. Burke II, 22, who is also married and is a first-year law student at Whittier College. Both children have children of their own.

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Burke said he hopes his son will join his law practice and maybe follow him into politics. Indeed, Burke described his son as “almost a clone of mine.” They have shared interests in everything from gymnastics to coin collection to the law.

Montivel A. Burke II said he knows his father would like him to follow in his footsteps, but that he hasn’t exerted undue pressure.

“My father,” said the younger Burke, “has set a great example.”


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