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Profile: John Burton, Chairman of the State Democratic Party San Francisco 2010 -

By Peter Jamison

Every city has its own political godfather with a checkered personal history, sailor's vocabulary, and unsettling mustache. In San Francisco, that man is John Burton.

The 77-year-old chairman of the California Democratic Party grew up in the Sunset and West Portal neighborhoods, and spent three decades in public office, most recently in the state Senate. He was termed out in 2004. Burton has been around local politics so long that he remembers when Republicans — an American opposition party some San Franciscans may have heard of on television — had a hand in running this town.

"When I grew up, the city was predominantly white," Burton recalls. "African-Americans lived around the Fillmore. The Chinese community never really got much west of Powell, Mason — maybe Taylor — and never north of Geary. The Japanese-Americans were all in concentration camps."

So where does a guy who's seen and done it all get his kicks in a town that has changed so much?

Burton says he likes to frequent the restaurants and neighborhoods that still retain some of their flavor from the old days, although one of his favorite parts of the city — SOMA — is also one of those most transformed by the 1990s influx of dot-com cash. But Burton still has favored haunts. One of them is a relatively new addition to SOMA's formerly industrial landscape: AT&T Park. Burton has Giants season tickets.

"You take all of the goddamn developments over I don't know how many years, and that to me is one of the best things — if not the best thing — that happened to the city," he says of the Giants' swanky baseball stadium. Another SOMA favorite of Burton's is Rocco's restaurant; he also includes Pazzia, Tommy Toy's, Caesar's Italian Restaurant, and Yank Sing on his short list of preferred eateries. "If you're going to list any restaurants, list them all, or somebody's going to be pissed," he says.

As for San Francisco politics — so often cause for lamentation these days among pundits who see City Hall as a hub of dysfunction — Burton says he's still a fan of the city's leftward bent and hyperactive political culture. San Francisco "supports liberal people, so you can go into office and vote your conscience and not worry about everybody being against you. ... People are very active and concerned about their city."

That's a good thing? "It can become a pain in the ass once you're elected," Burton acknowledges. "But I think it's a good thing, because it keeps people honest."

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