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Clair W. Burgener, 84; Former Congressman Defeated Supremacist

September 12, 2006|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Clair W. Burgener, a Republican from San Diego who was best known for taking off his genteel gloves during his final race for Congress in 1980 to soundly defeat Ku Klux Klan leader Tom Metzger, has died. He was 84.

Burgener died Saturday of complications from Alzheimer's disease at Silverado Senior Living in Encinitas, Calif., where he had resided in recent years, said Aurora Griggs, a nurse at the facility.

Former Gov. George Deukmejian, a close friend of Burgener, said: "He had a personality that drew a great many people to him as friends and as supporters of his efforts to improve the quality of life for Californians."

Burgener served on the San Diego City Council from 1953 to 1957 and in the state Legislature for a decade beginning in 1963.

State colleagues praised his work on welfare legislation and the welfare of the mentally retarded -- a cause he was passionate about because his eldest son was born severely mentally retarded.

In 1973, Burgener went to Washington as a representative of the conservative 43rd District, which covered parts of San Diego, Imperial and Riverside counties.

Known for his honesty and ethics, he attracted little notice over the years but received national media coverage during a contest he loathed from start to finish -- the defense of his seat against Metzger. The Democratic candidate had switched his registration from Republican, winning the primary against candidates with little name identification. Horrified, even state Democratic leaders endorsed Burgener for reelection.

"This campaign has been one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life," Burgener said, although he went on to win 86% of the vote and break a 40-year-old record for votes received in a House race.

The idea of possibly losing to a white supremacist caused Burgener many sleepless nights.

"I wake up ... and I think, 'My God, could this happen?' " Burgener told The Times in 1980. "But then, in the cool light of day, I think it won't, that I'm going to win. My God, I don't represent a bunch of bigots, do I?"

Abandoning his plan to ignore Metzger, the lifelong conservative became a leading spokesman against racism.

He called the victory the "sweetest" of his political career.

An ally and friend of three Republican presidents -- Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan -- he also wasn't afraid to stand apart.

In the late 1970s, Burgener broke ranks with his party to support the Equal Rights Amendment. He also was one of only 29 House Republicans to vote against the confirmation of Nelson Rockefeller as Ford's vice president.

When Burgener decided not to run for reelection, ending his congressional career in 1983, he said it was because he had promised his wife, Marvia, that they would spend no more than 10 years in Washington.

"He was able to work with people of various political leanings.... He had the ability to bring people together," Deukmejian told The Times.

Deukmejian asked Burgener to chair the California Republican Party in 1986 and later appointed him to the UC Board of Regents, on which he served from 1988 to 1997.

Burgener was born Dec. 5, 1921, in Vernal, Utah, and grew up there and in Salt Lake City.

Before politics, his preferred stage was the theater. He met his wife during a 1936 production in Utah of "Uncle Bob's Bride."

At San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, he starred in a 1951 staging of "Harvey" and reprised the role during a legislative holiday in 1970.

During World War II, Burgener served as a navigator in the Army Air Forces and was on a plane in the squadron that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. He also was an Air Force navigator in the Korean War.

After earning a bachelor's degree in liberal arts in 1950 from what is now San Diego State, Burgener stayed in the area to develop real estate.

In addition to his wife, Marvia, of San Diego, Burgener is survived by two sons, Greg of Cambria, Calif., and John of Shell Beach, Calif. His eldest son, Rod, died in a 1979 train accident.

Frustrated by testifying before an Assembly committee about the needs of the California Assn. for the Retarded, Burgener said he realized that "you can't get anything done from the outside" and entered politics.

Despite his years on the national stage, he believed that he had accomplished more in Sacramento as an assemblyman from 1963 to 1967 and as a senator from 1967 to 1973.

His "most important" achievement, he said, was pushing through state legislation that mandated classroom instruction for the mentally retarded.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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