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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Exciting Times Await Senate With Burton at the Helm

January 19, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Sometimes I think Assemblyman Burton is the one man in Sacramento who has the most to fear from the squirrels in Capitol Park.

--Gov. Ronald Reagan, 1973


"I mean, can you believe it?" Sen. John Burton kept saying to Capitol cohorts Friday, his face beaming through a graying, heavy mustache and bushy eyebrows. That's the cleaned-up version, anyway, of what he kept saying. And, no, scarcely anybody could believe it.

The longer they had been around the Capitol and the more they'd seen, the harder it was for them to absorb what had happened. It truly was astounding. This wisecracking, hyper, profane, outspoken San Francisco liberal had just been chosen by his fellow Democrats to be the next leader of the Senate. Sometime next month, he'll replace the "termed-out" Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward).

Can you believe it? was being asked by practically everybody, especially the old-timers.

Most were saying it with a smile, however, rather than in disgust. Burton generally is liked and respected, even by Republicans.

Senate GOP leader Rob Hurtt of Garden Grove issued a brief statement, saying: "Sen. Burton is a straightforward man of his word. I anticipate that he will manage the house without the partisanship or personal politics of his predecessor." Burton added this quasi-endorsement to his can you believe it? refrain. "I loved the Rob Hurtt release. Here, you've got this right-wing guy. . . . "


There are several reasons why Burton's elevation to Senate leadership is astonishing. And they're quite apart from his having been diagnosed as politically dead after quitting Congress 16 years ago because of cocaine addiction. He got into treatment and has been clean ever since. That's one reason for his colleagues' respect.

The fundamental reason for the Capitol shock is that Burton is a genuine character--a joking, jeans-wearing, irreverent, cultural nonconformist. Last year, mocking Gov. Pete Wilson's welfare reform, he introduced a bill making it a crime to be poor. In floor debates, he frequently calls Wilson "the little Marine." On his office wall, there's a framed jockstrap with the words, "I am a Burton supporter."

Very unleaderlike.

Burton says he'll be toning it down--"you can't be smartass"--but there'll be no personality change. "People know what they got when they voted for me."

The 65-year-old lawmaker may act goofy, but--except for when he was strung out--he never has been a goof-off. He works hard and he's smart. Democrats named him their leader because of his energy, fund-raising ability and experience; he first was elected to the Assembly in 1964.

He's the only state legislator ever to have led a successful override of a Reagan veto--on a bill that kept open mental hospitals.

Then Reagan labeled him a nut after Burton had ridiculed the governor for calling a special election on his spending limitation initiative. Burton was right: Voters rejected the complicated measure and embarrassed Reagan. Burton called a news conference in Capitol Park and fed the squirrels.


Other reasons for the Capitol's amazement fit into two contexts--a 1990s context and a historic context:

* In an era when the state electorate and the Legislature are almost evenly split ideologically, a far-left liberal has been selected to lead the Senate. Also, he's a career politician when voters are demanding new blood. Moreover, he's a machine pol--charter member of a powerful San Francisco organization that once included his late brother, Rep. Phillip Burton, and the assassinated Mayor George Moscone, and still involves present Mayor Willie Brown.

* But it's in the historic context that this is a real mind-blower for Capitol veterans. The Senate traditionally has been moderate not only in politics but in style--civil and sedate, almost to the point of needing No Doz to watch. Its former leaders--personified by the legendary Hugh Burns (D-Fresno) in the '60s--have tended to be courtly but secretive. Their pals were lobbyists. Burton even hangs with reporters.

There was a poignant moment Friday when a reporter asked Burton whether he had been thinking of his brother Phillip during the leadership vote. Tears filled his eyes. Finally, he replied: "Him and George [Moscone]. . . And this will knock ya for a loop--Hugh Burns. . ." Then he rattled off names of departed senators few present ever knew existed.

"I mean, I think about stuff like that," Burton said. "I've got a lot of respect for the history of this institution. If there is a life hereafter, George and Phil will be up there laughing."

You can believe this: The Legislature is about to become a lot more exciting.

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