The Last of the Burtons?

They have dominated state and local politics for 50 years. Now, for the first time, the future of their "family business" is in doubt.

It's not everybody, of course, who can command a thousand members of the nation's political, financial, and cultural elite to pony up $500 contributions (the maximum allowed) in an obscure public defender race. Attempting to defuse the money issue, Kimiko Burton has joined Adachi in pledging to abide by a voluntary spending cap of $175,000 on official campaign expenditures. She has refused to pledge not to accept soft money -- supposedly independent expenditures from supporters not formally associated with a campaign -- saying she has no control over how her friends spend their money.

As the campaign has matured, Burton has gradually lost some of the insecurity that characterized her Chinatown performance in December. Since Adachi says the same things over and over, she knows what to expect. She has stripped her public comments of any reference to Mayor Brown. Smarting from Adachi's frequent criticism that she does not work as a trial lawyer, she promises to personally handle a caseload if elected. She wants to be judged on her own record.

Yet her opponents can also mine her record: her appointments by Willie Brown. Mixed reviews for administering several juvenile justice programs. A tenure as public defender that is good or bad depending on whom you talk to. Burton supporter Susan Kaplan, a deputy public defender who sometimes speaks on Burton's behalf on the campaign trail, says her boss is "doing a fabulous job. She's a model leader, she's talented in the courtroom." Other Burton supporters in the office criticize Adachi for his micromanagement style and his obsession with winning in court to the detriment of the interests of some clients. Burton's office detractors, on the other hand, say she is cold and distant, that she avoids trial work, that she plea bargains too much, that office morale has plummeted under her reign, that she did not give me a raise, that she buys cheap file folders. Even Burton's most vocal critics, however, cannot provide any smoking-gun evidence to prove incompetence, malfeasance, or any good reason why she shouldn't be elected public defender.

Michele and John Burton with infant Kim  in 1965.
Courtesy of Kimiko Burton
Michele and John Burton with infant Kim in 1965.
At the Democratic Women's Forum: She is asking to be judged on her own record.
Brandon Fernandez
At the Democratic Women's Forum: She is asking to be judged on her own record.

Burton considers one of her proudest accomplishments to be creating the job of finance director, so that the public defender herself does not have to waste her time on the nitty-gritty of preparing the $13 million budget every year. ("The budget took an inordinate amount of time. I had to call in a lot of favors [at City Hall] last year.") Another accomplishment was "reforming the office to focus on the interests of its clients rather than those of individual lawyers."

"People were going to trial on three-year [plea bargain] offers and exposing clients to life [in prison] -- and some lost."

There is no reason to disbelieve Burton's good intentions. She is obviously sincere when she says that as a "progressive" Democrat she owes society.

"I love being the public defender," she says. "It's the last line of defense to protect the Constitution. We keep the system honest. We make sure everyone has a voice. A society should be judged by how well it treats its least fortunate members."

It is not so much Burton's beliefs, nor her modest but perfectly acceptable record, that pulls her down in the public eye. It is her connection to her father that is causing her trouble. And there is nothing at all she can do about it, as has been apparent from early in the campaign.

The first Adachi-Burton debate was held at the District 3 Democratic Club in upscale North Beach on Jan. 29. Adachi was on the attack from the start, accusing Burton of using soft money to beef up her already buff campaign kitty. Burton kept her cool. She insisted that she be judged on her merits, not her heritage -- at the same time, of course, she claimed, as a merit, her heritage.

She became steely-eyed, though, when an audience member, clearly an Adachi supporter, asked her how she will "erase the baggage of being your father's daughter?" Burton frostily replied: "I am a woman in my own right. If I was John Burton's son, people would not say these things, that I am a daddy's girl. I am not ashamed of being my father's daughter. He does not dictate what I do."

The group voted unanimously to endorse Adachi.

John Burton has one brown eye and one green eye. He talks in short sentences punctuated with "fuck." He's been married and divorced two times. He has one child, "Kimmy." He loves her. He wants to give her a leg up on life.

"She used to visit me in Washington or Sacramento during the summers," says Burton over coffee. "She's been around. She knows a lot of people. I don't give her a lot of advice. I might say, "Go see this person, go see that person.' I sent out letters to people. Called a few people to inform them that she was running."

Burton -- the second most powerful politician in California after Gov. Gray Davis -- is obviously not used to explaining himself to strangers. His gruff exterior barely conceals the volcanic temperament for which he is infamous. It is a testament to just how badly he desires his daughter to win her race that he answers questions about his personal life in multiple sentences.

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