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The Very Public Passions and Protestations of a Bleeding-Heart Liberal

January 21, 2002|George Skelton


Senate leader John Burton is the type who will buy blankets and drive around San Francisco handing them out to the homeless.

Or he'll hit up a special interest, not just for money to fuel some Democrat's campaign, but for $5,000 worth of stocking caps to distribute to denizens of the sidewalk. Then he'll put the bite on for rain ponchos.

Three decades ago, then- Assemblyman Burton kept state mental hospitals open by masterminding the override of a Ronald Reagan veto. It was the only veto Gov. Reagan ever had overridden.

And, of course, Burton's late brother, Assemblyman and Congressman Phillip Burton, was a legendary crusader for welfare moms and the working class.

"We were brought up to be that way," says Burton, 69, whose father became a doctor in middle age. "My old man, he'd do house calls in the Fillmore, a black area, at 2 in the morning. And if the family looked like it didn't have money, he'd say, 'Forget it. Go buy the kid a pair of shoes.'"

So when the Senate leader, trying to salvage benefits for the poor, proposed an income tax increase on the wealthiest-- married couples with taxable earnings over $260,000--and the governor was about to brush him off in his State of the State address, the old liberal got even more grouchy than normal. He "hit traffic and fog" and didn't show up until the very end of the speech.

And when Davis, in order to balance a $100-billion budget, later proposed paring benefits for the working poor, welfare families and the aged, blind and disabled, Burton called it "immoral."

"For some people," Burton said, "it can be the difference between tuna fish and cat food for lunch."

Then some senators who are fond of Burton raised their eyebrows and asked themselves-- and subsequently him--whether he really wasn't going too far.

After all, Burton and Davis both are Democrats and this is an election year, many noted. Moreover, a Senate leader should show respect for the office of governor, even if he has little regard for the occupant.

"Some believe there ought to be more conciliation," says a senator, speaking anonymously. But this Democrat adds that Burton "is saying stuff others wish they could but are afraid.... The majority of us believe the governor is off the mark with a lot of things."

Another Burton ally says the Senate leader "crossed the line" by showing up just in time for post-speech media interviews.

He continues: "Most of the senior membership of the Senate were concerned. Each of us touched base with John. Some of the concern had to do with caring about John, trying to make sure he's OK."

He's increasingly irrational, top Davis advisors contend. Says one: "Bad manners, bad politics. The governor sits there in total disbelief."

It's especially puzzling, the aide says, because Davis did Burton a political favor by clearing the way for his daughter, Kimiko Burton, to be named San Francisco public defender. (Davis appointed the previous defender, Jeff Brown, to the Public Utilities Commission.)

No question, Davis and Burton have an unhealthy relationship. It's the most openly strained of any between a governor and legislative leader of the same party since at least the mid-'60s when Pat Brown and Speaker Jesse Unruh feuded.

The animosity hampers compromise on major legislation and sours the atmosphere.

Many Burton insiders say he has a visceral dislike of Davis. "He really can't stand him," says one. "He's told everybody who will listen."

It's about being "genuine versus contrived," explains another. Davis is viewed throughout the Capitol as politically calculating, with few--if any--core beliefs. Burton is committed to the poor against the powerful.

The two are opposites in politics and personality. Davis is a cautious centrist; Burton a bold bleeding heart. Davis is aloof; Burton extroverted.

Over lunch last week, Burton denied he viscerally dislikes Davis. He'd just had a fence-mending dinner the night before with the governor's top two aides, Chief of Staff Lynn Schenk and Cabinet Secretary Susan Kennedy.

"I do not dislike him," Burton insisted, his voice rising. "Never have. I get upset. He gets upset with me. I don't dislike people, I dislike what they do."

Legislators like Burton, despite his ill manners and crudeness. "A softie at heart," they say. "He'll go to the mat for you.... We give John a lot of space."

Some encroached on that space with friendly criticism last week. But he's in no danger of being dethroned. The San Franciscan no doubt will reign as Senate leader until he's termed out in 2004.

Meanwhile, he'll help the homeless stay warm and the poor keep benefits--give Davis fits and liven up the Capitol for the rest of us.

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