SAN FRANCISCO — In Hollywood, conventional wisdom says you can't make movies about politics because no one cares enough to watch.
In San Francisco, you can't hold a political race without everyone watching every minute.
This election season's most captivating race here stars the daughter of a storied San Francisco politician and the son of a Sacramento auto mechanic. Other featured players are the father who got his colleagues to contribute to his child's campaign and the mayor--Dad's buddy for decades--who insists he hasn't greased the daughter's path. Clint Eastwood makes a cameo appearance as the main draw at a fund-raiser for her.
The prize? The position of public defender--that unglamorous office that defends accused criminals who can't afford counsel. It pays $140,000, about as much as a third-year associate in a tony San Francisco law firm makes.
But Kimiko Burton and Jeff Adachi want it bad, and San Francisco seems intrigued.
Burton, 37, who was appointed public defender last year by Mayor Willie Brown after her predecessor left during his term, is the latest of the fabled Burton clan to run for political office. She is the only child of state Sen. John Burton, arguably the most powerful politician in the state next to Gov. Gray Davis.
Her uncle was the late U.S. Rep. Phil Burton, legendary champion of social and environmental causes. She worked in the public defender's office for five years in the early '90s before leaving to work for the state Board of Equalization, California's tax authority.
Adachi, 42, who once had a job as a duck plucker--"40 cents a duck, it's pretty good when you're a teenager," he said--worked in the public defender's office for 15 years, rising to chief attorney, until Kim Burton came in and replaced him with her own chief of staff.
This year they've both walked neighborhoods and attended house parties. They've submitted themselves to grueling rounds of interviews with San Francisco's dozens of Democratic clubs, as if they were going through sorority rush.
"The only thing I've wanted to do is be a public defender," says Adachi.
"It is where my passion lies," says Burton.
Unusual System for an Unusual City
It's unclear why San Francisco is the only city in the state and one of two in the country--the other is Tampa, Fla.--that elects a public defender. But it's fitting that the phenomenon would occur in a city with a strong social conscience. If any body politic would want to have a hand in deciding who represents its poor on criminal charges, it would be San Francisco's.
That said, the office rarely generates election heat. The city's first public defender, Frank Egan, was elected in 1921. Not since he was tried and convicted in 1932 of murdering a client--he was moonlighting in trusts and estates work--has so much attention been focused on the public defender's office.
But San Franciscans love a good show, and this is the juiciest thing going. "There's nothing else all that exciting," says a local litigator who follows politics. "We've hardly heard of [gubernatorial candidate Richard] Riordan."
Many see the race, rightly or wrongly, as a gauge of how much power the Burton name still carries.
"[John Burton's] daughter's race is his canary in the mine shaft--to see if there is any oxygen left for the Burton machine in San Francisco," says Peter Keane, the dean of Golden Gate Law School and a supporter of Adachi. "I think it has tremendous symbolic importance."
Here, Burton is about as high-profile a family name as you can get. The Burtons are beloved as protectors of the poor, civil rights and the environment.
Phil Burton is credited with creating Golden Gate National Recreation Area. John Burton is a formidable political force; the Burtons have lost one election among them in 50 years.
A small city (population 770,000) with a long history of social activism, San Francisco has a political structure built not on party politics--most players are liberal or ultra-liberal--but on issues, people and relationships.
As the tapestry of personal connections goes, it ranks somewhere between a Tolstoy novel and "The Young and the Restless." Not as complex as the former; not as much sex as the latter.
Kimiko Burton's campaign has been fraught with rumors about how she got appointed to the job in the first place. When Public Defender Jeff Brown left last year for a seat on the Public Utilities Commission, both Burton and Adachi wanted the job and told the mayor as much.
Adachi was the No. 2 lawyer in the office; he estimates he handled 2,500 cases, 100 of them as jury trials, over the course of 15 years. Burton was director of the mayor's Criminal Justice Council, coordinating city departments involved in criminal justice issues and bringing in $46 million in federal and state grants. She helped fund a variety of juvenile justice programs, including a high school to help troubled youths.
But rumors spread that Brown appointed Burton as a favor to her father.