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.

Burton says he never encouraged his daughter to enter politics. "People tend to get in the, you know, "Janowitz & Sons' grocery store. You know, people tend to get in the family's business or something, no matter where you are."

Things are not going too well with his daughter's campaign, though. "I've seen the polls," Burton says glumly. "It's a horse race."

But Kimiko isn't the only Burton whose future is up in the air. John Burton is two years away from being term-limited out of his job representing eastern San Francisco and southern Marin County in the state Senate. With that deadline looming, Burton has gone to elaborate -- some would say desperate -- means to keep himself in the family business, by concocting Proposition 45, a statewide initiative that will appear on the March ballot. The measure allows an incumbent state legislator to run for an additional term by allowing a small percentage of the voters in his district to sign a petition. Burton admits he has raised the lion's share of the more than $2 million contributed to the effort by a mixed bag of labor unions and large corporations.

Should that measure fail, however (a distinct possibility, according to the polls), Burton will face uncertain prospects. According to several political consultants, Burton would then run for mayor. Willie Brown, who by law cannot serve a third term as mayor, would in turn run for Burton's senate seat, for which he has already raised $1 million.

But could Burton win a mayor's race? One local gossip columnist has speculated that a cold, calculating Burton père is using his daughter as a "canary in the coal mine" to test the appeal of the family name in a potential mayoral run -- a charge the father rejects.

"I wouldn't need my daughter to run for office to see whether or not I could be elected mayor," he says irritatedly. But if Kimiko loses her race because of her association with her dad, it would certainly give John Burton pause.

Then there is the Newsom factor. Burton's protégé and business partner, Supervisor Gavin Newsom, is gearing up for a mayoral run in 2003. Newsom says he will "never" run against his mentor.

"If I ran, I wouldn't be running against him then," Burton smiles. He takes a swipe at Newsom's much-ballyhooed homeless plan. "I don't think you solve the homeless problem by punishing the homeless."

Burton, who will be 70 on his next birthday, says he will figure out his future, including a potential run for mayor, if Prop. 45 fails in March. "If I got out of office, I would get involved in the homeless issue," he offers, clearly not relishing that prospect.

For all the uncertainty surrounding his and Kimiko's plans, Burton insists that the family is not at a critical turning point, nor is Kimiko's race a test of the Burton name. "We are not at a crossroads," he says succinctly. "I do not know about my political future. Kim's race has nothing to do with anything else."

He will admit that Kimiko's family and political connections haven't always been a plus. "Sure a certain segment of the population does not like the mayor. They equate him with me. They equate Kim with me."

But he denies that her fortunes in the election will say anything about the waxing or waning of the famed Burton-Brown machine. In fact, he says, there is no monolithic political machine in San Francisco; just a lot of factions competing to run the Democratic Party apparatus.

"What's a machine? Adachi and [Supervisor] Matt [Gonzalez] and [Supervisor] Tommy [Ammiano]? There's never been a Brown-Burton machine. They used to lay it on my brother, Phillip. All it is, you had people that supported people. When my brother was alive there weren't six jobs you could give anybody."

Denying the existence of such a machine is part of the family line. Even Kimiko's husband, Emilio Cruz, who has been appointed to several jobs by Mayor Brown (most recently to serve out the term of a school board member who resigned), scoffs at the notion.

"I grew up in Chicago," Cruz says. "Under the Daly machine, no opposition was tolerated. There wasn't a strike for 22 years. San Francisco is nothing like that. There is no iron fist. There are networks -- political, business, and family networks.

"Politics in this city is personal. It's all about whom you know. If "cronyism' is hiring someone you know, then are you stuck hiring only people you don't know? If you are around for 65 years, you know a lot of people; there is an intrinsic lack of logic in the argument against cronyism."

By any name, the Burtons and Willie Brown have maintained an impressive grip on local and state politics since 1956, when John's brother Phillip won an Assembly seat from San Francisco. His victory marked the end of the line for the city's political patronage machine, which at that time was an adjunct of the Archdiocese of the Catholic Church. According to the late John Jacobs' 1995 biography of Phil Burton, A Rage for Justice, "The Church, via Catholic schools that placed graduates, many of them orphans, controlled most of the jobs in the police and fire departments, public works, parks and recreation, the municipal railway, and the post office."

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