SAN FRANCISCO — It is a delicate situation: Democratic Rep. Sala Burton, whose district encompasses 75% of this city, is battling cancer. And various politicians--some of them her friends--are openly lining up support to go after her seat, should it suddenly come open.
Politics are always lively in the city that has produced such powerful operators as Burton's late husband, Phillip, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy. But the next election in the 5th Congressional District--whenever it comes--promises to be especially intense because it will pit increasingly powerful gay and neighborhood activists against the old Democratic machine built by Phil Burton and Brown.
"This thing is the talk of the town," said Paul Ambrosino, a young San Francisco political consultant. "There's really only been one hot race for this seat since Phil Burton won it 20 years ago. So nobody knows precisely what the values of the voters are or how the various voting blocs might respond."
Sala Burton, 61, underwent surgery for colon cancer in August and recently went back into George Washington University Hospital. She met Saturday with relatives and friends in Washington and announced that she hopes to finish out her term but will not seek reelection in 1988.
"It's an awful situation," said Paul Pelosi, whose wife, Nancy, a San Francisco socialite and longtime Democratic activist, is a close friend of Sala Burton and wants to succeed her when she leaves Congress.
"I really believe Sala is going to get better," Nancy Pelosi said in an interview. "I will seek her seat in 1988 if she does not run."
Pelosi, former chairwoman of the California Democratic Party, is well-connected to numerous national Democratic figures and has helped many of them raise money. She could expect them to return the favor, and she would also get help from former Rep. John Burton, Sala Burton's brother-in-law, and from Brown and McCarthy, who have been close to Pelosi for years.
Until recently, that kind of support from the Democratic establishment would have made Pelosi the heavy favorite. But that is no longer the case, according to political consultants familiar with the district.
With 65% of its voters registered Democratic, the 5th Congressional District has long been a stronghold of liberal, pro-labor forces.
But its working-class character has been altered in recent years by the influx of young, upwardly mobile professionals, or Yuppies. In the 1984 Democratic presidential primary, for example, Yuppie favorite Gary Hart of Colorado stunned the supporters of former Vice President Walter Mondale by winning five of the six national convention delegates.
Gays and neighborhood groups are increasingly active in the district.
What this means, according to consultants in the city, is that an establishment candidate like Pelosi would face a major battle for the 5th District from Harry Britt, a gay activist and champion of renters' rights who who has served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors since 1979. He has announced that he will run if Burton's seat becomes open.
"The (Burton) machine expects us to always give them their votes, but this time it's different," said Dick Pabich, Britt's political consultant, who explained that better leadership on the AIDS issue is the major goal of the gay community.
AIDS a 'Top Priority'
"If Harry won, his top priority in Congress would be AIDS," Pabich said. "Some members of Congress, like (Los Angeles Democratic Rep. Henry) Waxman have been helpful on this, but there is no one back there really out front in a leadership role on AIDS."
San Francisco political consultant Clint Reilly said: "The gays feel they have paid their dues, that they've come of age. They believe it is their turn, and Britt is their candidate. I would expect money to pour in from gays all over the country if there is a special election for this seat."
Political consultants say Britt would go into a special election with a significant bloc of gay votes, a bloc that would be magnified in importance if turnout is low, as expected.
Also mentioned as possible candidates for the Burton seat are Supervisors Bill Maher and Carol Ruth Silver, both Democrats.
Even Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who is in the last year of her tenure, has considered running for the seat while she bides her time for a possible statewide candidacy later. Some of her advisers have urged her to run if Burton resigns, even if that comes before the end of Feinstein's term as mayor. But Deputy Mayor Hadley Rolfe said: "She wants to finish out her last year as mayor; it's very important to her."
Should Burton not be able to finish out her term, Gov. George Deukmejian would have to call a special election. It would be preceded by an open primary, meaning that Democrats and Republicans could vote for candidates of either party.
That could be significant, according to Reilly, because if the Republicans do not come up with a credible candidate of their own, one of the Democratic candidates could benefit from a bloc of the Republican votes if they could be motivated to turn out.