Invoking a Democratic Fighting Spirit

It's been a dozen years since Phil Burton, the San Francisco political titan, was laid to rest in a plot overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

But as sure as he is dead, the spirit of the late Democratic congressman and California political godfather came alive, albeit briefly, last week at a political seance of sorts.

For two hours, his Democratic colleagues took turns before a microphone, telling stories of the legendary Burton--drawing sustenance from the memory of political power he bullishly wielded so freely during his 19 years in Congress; trying to forget for the moment all they have recently lost at the hands of Republicans.

"If you want to hear some good stories about Phil Burton, you're in your mother's arms," Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) offered to the crowd, his arms outstretched while parroting one of Burton's trademark lines.

The old political war stories, while comforting the Democrats, also reminded them just how much they need a new "Phil Burton" to lead them in today's political battles.

"I always said: 'Phil Burton, you son of a bitch, why did you have to leave so soon?' " lamented his former staffer, Eni F. H. Faleomavaega, who is now an elected non-voting delegate to Congress representing American Samoa.


Burton, were he still among the living, would surely have appreciated the attention but might be stunned by how far Democratic fortunes have fallen in Washington.

Gone is the Democratic control of the House.

Gone is any trace of his passionate, liberal legislative agenda that expected a big-spending government to protect the environment, the working class and the poor. In his time, he fought to increase the minimum wage, to expand national parks in California and to improve benefits for coal miners with black-lung disease.

And all but gone is the Democratic hold on the California congressional delegation that Burton himself designed in a controversial redistricting plan of the 1980s, in a bold demonstration of his political genius and savvy. The scheme, which he boasted was his contribution to modern art, handed California Democrats an 11-seat margin over Republicans. Now, after the 1992 redistricting, Democrats outnumber Republicans by only two House seats.

Had he been at the party, commemorating the publication of his biography by California political columnist John Jacobs, Burton surely would also have noticed it being held in an antiseptic room in the Capitol's basement, instead of one of the more ornate, stately rooms upstairs that the Democrats enjoyed during their political reign.

The hard-drinking liberal certainly would have commented on the California wine being dispensed from cardboard boxes.

"He would have said, 'What is all this Chablis ----? Where are the martinis?' " said Rep. Pete Stark (D-Hayward).

That boorish style drove Burton's legislative successes, yet it wore down his friends and political enemies alike.

"He towered over his fellow politicians in hallway encounters, thumping his finger on their chests, spitting saliva as he shouted, consuming, as one witness put it, 'their very oxygen,' " writes Jacobs in his 578-page book, "A Rage For Justice," published by University of California Press.

But Burton also mastered the art of forging unlikely coalitions to win elections and get legislation passed. As a testament to his political prowess, two California Republicans, congressmen Steve Horn of Long Beach and Jerry Lewis of Redlands, and conservative Southern Democrats were among the members of Congress who joined in last week's tribute to this icon of Democratic liberalism.


Those left behind wondered what Burton--who came within one vote of becoming House Majority Leader in 1976--would make of these new political times.

What would he think of Newt Gingrich, the Republican House Speaker who achieved the leadership status Burton coveted; the man who, while Burton's political opposite, operated like him in challenging the status quo to consolidate his own political power?

How would this most-feared California Democrat of his time discipline his troops now cowering in the shadow of the Republican political stronghold on Capitol Hill?

"He would be in such an ugly mood and he would be doing everything he could to make [the Republicans'] lives miserable. He would be red-faced," said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), who gritted his teeth and popped open his eyes in an imitation of his political mentor.

Burton also would have envied Gingrich's early success at keeping Republican votes in line, Berman added. "That's what he wanted to do with the Democrats."

The Democrats also reminded themselves that Burton would have found a way to work around a seemingly impenetrable system. He would have lectured them to learn from their defeats.

Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Atherton) said Democrats should not complain about how things are now, but instead "be fighters the way he was." In Burton's memory, added Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who eventually picked up Burton's seat, "may we always carry [his] rage with us."

But more to the point, said Rep. Ronald D. Coleman (D-Texas), the blustery Burton would have told the Democrats to to quit wasting time with all this talk. "He would say, 'Get back up there [to the House Chambers] and get back to work.' "

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