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.

Phil Burton observed that the demographics of San Francisco, which in 1940 had been 95 percent white, were rapidly changing. Basing himself in the burgeoning Chinese and black communities, with strong support from newly arising janitorial and government employee labor unions, Burton became a working-class hero. In 1964, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and his protégé, Willie Brown, a young defense attorney, won an Assembly seat from a district in the city center. John Burton slipped into his brother's vacant Assembly seat, subsequently joining Phil in Congress in 1974. Brown went on to rule the Assembly for 14 years as speaker.

An alcoholic, self-destructive, verbally abusive man, Phil Burton nevertheless accomplished some amazing feats of legislative legerdemain in the realms of health care, welfare, labor relations, and protection of the environment. He lived by the credo that his ends justified his means. He cut practical deals with his supposed ideological enemies, such as Southern congressmen, trading tobacco and cotton subsidies for health care for coal miners. He became a ruthless gerrymanderer -- periodically redrawing California's election districts into fantastic shapes that favored himself, his brother, and his allies.

While powerful at the state level, the historically fused Burton-Brown alliance was of lesser influence in San Francisco, until Brown became mayor in 1995. Mayor George Moscone was in the Burton camp, but Mayors Jack Shelley, Joseph Alioto, Dianne Feinstein, Art Agnos, and Frank Jordan were relatively independent from the Burtons and Brown. In recent years, the Brown-Burton-Pelosi loyalists who have dominated the local Democratic Party apparatus have regularly picked and funded candidates to run for office in San Francisco, such as Assessor Doris Ward, and former Supervisors Michael Yaki, Amos Brown, and Sue Bierman. Since 1996, too, Mayor Brown has created thousands of new city positions and filled many of them with his supporters -- including Kimiko Burton and Emilio Cruz.

John Burton was a hell-raiser while his paternalistic brother was alive. He resigned from Congress right before Phil died, citing problems with drug and alcohol addiction. In 1988, he made a comeback and was, once again, elected to the Assembly. Term-limited out in 1996, he won a state Senate seat. In 1998, he was elected president pro tempore by his colleagues, a job that he describes as "being in charge of the Senate."

Being in charge means raising millions of campaign dollars every year from thousands of lobbyists and businesspeople. Taking campaign donations from, and owning stock in, companies that do business with the Legislature -- as Burton does -- is not illegal, though it might suggest at least a conflict of interest. The possible public perception of de facto conflicts of interest does not seem to concern Burton, who has been known to charge as much as $43,000 for a single phone call on behalf of a developer.

His brow beetles and his voice thunders when the question is raised. "If something looked like a conflict of interest, I would recuse myself. I can't remember ever recusing myself. People can criticize what they want. I want people to criticize my voting record. If somebody for whatever reason gives me money that is actually against their best interest, I would assume that's their problem. I don't give a fuck."

Like it or not, the public's perception of Burton's integrity is his problem. Provided, of course, he wants to keep the family business alive and out of the hands of a new generation of politicians who, like Adachi, owe him nothing.


"I did not raise her to be a politician," says Michele Burton, Kimiko's mother. "Obviously she had that influence in her life from her dad."

John and Michele divorced nearly three decades ago. She never remarried. She works as a health care consultant out of her home on Potrero Hill. John has a house nearby. Kimiko and Emilio live down the street. Michele volunteered to be interviewed because she is ticked off at the "negativity" issuing from the Adachi camp.

She talks about how Kim was raised in a politically progressive atmosphere: taught to march for peace, taught not to eat grapes. She got the first clue that her daughter wanted to be a politician when Kimiko was appointed as public defender last year.

"I had been in denial before that," she laughs. "I was the only person surprised."

"Our electoral process is better than a dictatorship," she muses. "But it's not something I like to see people I love go through."

Campaigns, she says, bring out the mean spirit in people. Campaigns invade privacy. She is mad that Adachi stole the Web domain name "kimikoburton.com." (A visitor to that site is automatically linked to a newspaper article describing Kimiko's appointment by the mayor and her firing of Adachi.)

Michele does not understand why being associated with Willie Brown and John Burton is seen as a bad thing for her daughter.

"Kimiko is lucky to have John in her corner. She is proud of him and vice versa."

Politics has, at least indirectly, shaped the course of Michele's life. And now her only daughter has put herself in harm's way -- smack in the middle of a negative campaign that, Michele believes, is bound to get messy.

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