Rep. Sala Burton, Who Replaced Husband in Congress, Dies at 61

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Times Staff Writer

Rep. Sala Burton (D-San Francisco), who succeeded her late husband, Phillip Burton, in Congress in 1983, died Sunday night in Washington of colon cancer. She was 61.

“Mrs. Burton, recently hospitalized for further treatment and recuperation from cancer surgery, experienced a sudden decline this weekend,” said her nephew, Tom Schulz.

A member of the powerful House Rules Committee, she had undergone surgery in August and had been forced to take the oath for her present term at her Washington home when Congress convened last month. Her death is expected to lead to a political battle royal in the 5th Congressional District, where the political machine put together by Phillip Burton and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown is under challenge by gay activists and yuppies.


Sala Burton never achieved the glory or influence of her husband, a powerful 19-year veteran of Congress who engineered passage of landmark legislation such as the expansion of Redwood National Park, establishment of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, extension and increase of the minimum wage and creation of protections for coal miners suffering from black lung disease.

But in her husband’s tradition, Mrs. Burton, a Polish immigrant, was reliably liberal, voting against aid to contra rebels in Nicaragua and expenditure of funds for the MX missile, and supporting arms control and making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a holiday.

Welcomed to Floor

After her surgery in August, she returned to the House floor in October to a standing ovation.

But last month, after a severe loss of weight, Burton was too weak to attend House swearing-in ceremonies. Her oath of office was administered at her Capitol Hill home by Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), chairman of the California Democratic congressional delegation.

The next day, Jan. 8, she returned to George Washington University Hospital and remained there until her death.

An intensely private person, she would not discuss her condition during the campaign last fall. She nonetheless won reelection easily, even though she made no public appearances.


Her successor will be decided in a special election to be called by Gov. George Deukmejian.

Support for Pelosi

Only last weekend, Mrs. Burton issued a statement saying that when the seat became vacant, she would support her campaign chairwoman, Nancy Pelosi, formerly the head of the California Democratic Party.

Pelosi has won endorsements of remaining members of the so-called “Burton machine,” which in the 1960s and 1970s was one of the strongest political coalitions ever in San Francisco. However, the Burtons’ influence waned greatly with Phil Burton’s death in 1983 and the retirement of his brother, former Rep. John Burton.

With the resulting power vacuum, there is no apparent favorite to win the 5th District seat, a strongly Democratic area that includes three-fourths of San Francisco. San Francisco County Supervisors Harry Britt, Carol Ruth Silver and Bill Maher are considering running.

With 65% of its voters registered as Democrats, the district has long been a stronghold of liberal, pro-labor forces. But its working-class character has changed in recent years with an influx of young upwardly mobile professionals, or Yuppies. Gays and neighborhood groups are increasingly active in the district.

Mrs. Burton won the seat in a special election in June, 1983, beating 10 candidates largely on the strength of her commitment to continue her late husband’s work as a strongly pro-labor, pro-environmentalist vote.


Feminist Advocate

She did continue his work, most recently calling for the construction of a breakwater to protect historic ships moored in an area of San Francisco Bay that was part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area created by her husband.

A feminist who successfully lobbied Congress for an extension of the Equal Rights Amendment ratification in 1980, Burton voted for its approval after being elected to the House.

Interested in social issues and opposed to discrimination against minorities, the poor and elderly, Burton helped pass legislation providing grants to open public schools for “latchkey” child care, a program Congress later reauthorized.

She backed provisions of the Higher Education Act for child care to enable poor women to attend school, and in 1986 sought to ease federal restrictions on the elderly seeking public housing.

Phil Burton often credited Sala with being his partner in politics, and decreed years before his death that his wife of 30 years would succeed him if she so desired.

Agnos Stands Aside

Democratic Assemblyman Art Agnos of San Francisco said Burton supported his election in 1976 on one condition--that he “take care” of Sala after Phil died. To Agnos, the assemblyman has said, that meant he would not seek the congressional seat in 1983 because Sala decided to run.


Mrs. Burton’s family came to the United States before World War II from Poland. She became a Democratic activist in the 1950s, when she helped found the California Democratic Council. She met Phillip, her second husband, at a Young Democrat’s meeting. She leaves one child from her first marriage, a daughter, Joy Tenes of Concord.