SACRAMENTO — On the floor of the California Assembly--where conduct runs from informal to rowdy amid fourscore voices slicing and dicing in partisan disunity--volcanic John Burton fits right in.
Erupting recently against proposed Republican cuts affecting the poor, the old-time San Francisco liberal presented his own patented production of an Assembly defining moment.
Leaving his seat, flinging aside his microphone, the 63-year-old Burton strode across the chamber aisle and got directly in the face of conservative Republican freshman Tom Woods of Shasta. Railing with the zeal of the reformed alcohol and cocaine addict that he is, Burton held onlookers rapt, venting heatedly while fixing Woods with a trademark bushy-browed glare.
To Woods' contention that addictions and diseases are unrelated, Burton demanded, "What about the addiction of nicotine? I suppose that doesn't cause cancer and emphysema."
A stone-faced Woods held his ground. Burton walked away, muttering an oath suggesting new placement of Woods' head.
Classic Burton rant, perfect Assembly theater--but not for much longer.
Democrat Burton departs the Assembly this year, forced out by term limits, as are 24 other Assembly members. As the front-runner in a state Senate race, he could remain a force in state politics.
But in the Assembly, where a Republican majority is consolidating its first year in power, the loss of Burton will leave the lower house without its most fiery, labor-backed populist.
The Assembly, as one Republican remarked, "will never the be same."
And not just because of Burton's partisan bombast. Both allies and some Republicans acknowledge a multi-sided John Burton: the excitable, profane lefty, ripping the conservative agenda one moment, but a calculating pragmatist the next. Burton said he makes it a point never to get too personal in debate, "because I may need the guy tomorrow."
It's a flexibility learned over many seasons in public life. First elected to the Assembly in 1964, he served 10 years, then was elected to Congress--his path made smooth by the maneuvering of his older brother, powerhouse Democratic Rep. Phillip Burton of San Francisco, who died in 1983.
John Burton resigned his congressional seat in 1982, entered rehabilitation to fight off his drug and alcohol habits that friends had feared would kill him, and six years later returned to the Assembly under his own steam.
Back in Sacramento as a changed man, twice divorced and doting on a grown daughter, Burton is now given to sunbathing, racquetball and abstract painting, along with old interests like reading pop novels, going to movies and collecting jazz recordings from the 1950s.
"We drink from dry glasses, no need for wine or champagne," he crooned during an interview in tribute to jazz singer Chris Connor and, seemingly, to his reformed but still freewheeling ways. In his outer office, filling a wicker basket, is an offering of condoms bearing the label, "Love carefully."
Garrulous, seasoned in his craft, Burton has a style that pays off in the GOP-ascendant Assembly, a view shared by some of the Assembly's most crusty right-wingers.
Assemblyman Mickey Conroy (R-Orange), who tried to get Sen. Tom Hayden expelled from the Legislature as a traitor for his anti-Vietnam War activities, nevertheless calls pacifist Burton a friend who "shows me a lot of class. He's sometimes easier to work with than members of my own party."
Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), although he finds Burton's floor antics "out of line" at times, said the volatile Democrat also has a "knowledge of how to get things done. . . . That's what you lose with term limits. . . . John Burton stays a friend, and that's something that is very rare here."
Burton gets this and other GOP kudos despite being no fan of Republican measures that would eliminate the eight-hour day for nonunion workers, grant tax reductions to corporations and cut welfare.
"Basically, it's [expletive] the poor, the working stiff and even some of the middle class for the benefit of the corporations and the wealthy," Burton said in an interview. With mocking irony, Burton introduced a short-lived bill last December making it a crime to be poor, explaining he was "just responding to the Republican agenda."
Burton lists among his accomplishments in Congress the passage of measures setting up a wilderness area within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area created by his brother, restricting offshore oil drilling, creating a marine sanctuary off San Francisco and prohibiting the CIA from assassinating foreign leaders or secretly funding foreign elections.
As an assemblyman, Burton pushed laws requiring schools to enroll autistic children and to teach basic spelling, establishing a renter tax credit and increasing sentences for purveyors of child pornography. Winning over a key conservative senator, Burton engineered the only veto override of Gov. Ronald Reagan, on a 1974 Burton bill slowing the closure of state mental hospitals.