John Burton, political icon, still on the move

John Burton smiles as he chats with reporters in 2004 as he leaves the state Senate because of term limits. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

To say that John Burton is wrapped up in politics is a bit like saying the Pacific Ocean is a large body of water.

Few California political figures can match his decades of back-and-forth between Washington and Sacramento.  Burton was elected to the Assembly in 1965 and served there until 1974; then he served in the House from 1974 until 1983; then he was back in the Assembly from 1988 until 1996; then he was in the state Senate from 1996 until 2004, serving as Senate leader from 1998 until term limits forced him out.

“I have always considered golf a good walk spoiled.” — John Burton.

And if that wasn’t enough, he was chairman of the California Democratic Party from April of 2009 through May of 2017.

Over half a century, the colorful Burton — cantankerous, profane and a shrewd political tactician — has been in and of scrapes, including his own bouts with substance abuse which, from time to time have drawn public attention. He served five terms in Congress, then checked himself into rehab in 1982. After rehabilitation, he won a seat in the Legislature backed by his longtime friend, Willie Brown.

Once, national anti-tax activist Grover Norquist said, “golf and cocaine would be more constructive ways to spend one’s free time than negotiating with Democrats on spending restraint,” a thinly veiled dig at Burton while referring to California’s 2011 budget negotiations.

“I have always considered golf a good walk spoiled,” Burton retorted.

“As a recovering cocaine addict, I am surprised that anyone would think that it is at all constructive to spend one’s free time using that drug. One would think that Mr. Norquist made this comment with a straw in his hand bending over a mirror full of white powder.”

“I love politics. I like to be in action. I’ve been in it since God knows when.” — John Burton

A few years later, he drew national attention with his interview on the Daily Show with  John Oliver in which he excoriated Amazon for wanting tax breaks to do business in California.

“Why the **** should Amazon skate when we have a state where we are shutting down schools, shutting down hospitals, firing teachers, firing cops, firing firemen, screwing mental health people — because they don’t want to have a god damned sales tax like everybody else?”

Last year, at a state Democratic Party convention, he gave a double middle-finger salute to Donald Trump.

“I love politics. I like to be in action,” Burton told Capitol Weekly in a telephone interview. “I’ve been in it since God knows when.”

Now, the latest chapter in Burton’s long political life is unfolding in Sacramento with the creation of his political consulting firm Burton and the Brains.

“If you have something to offer, people will come to see you.” — John Burton.

Burton is partnering with Angie Tate, long regarded as one of the savviest finance-oriented political operatives in California.  Tate served Burton for eight years as the chief financial officer for the California Democratic Party. In 2016, she worked for the successful passage of Prop. 57, an unusual combined initiated constitutional amendment and state statute that eased opportunities for “good behavior” paroles and allowed judges, rather than prosecutors to decide whether to try certain juveniles as adults in court.

At age 85, how does Burton feel about becoming a consultant after decades as an elected official?

“Let me tell you a story,” Burton says. “There was once a cat whose yowling kept the whole neighborhood awake.  Finally, the neighbors came to the cat’s owner and said that unless he got his cat fixed, they were going to fix him. So the guy agreed to get his cat fixed.  But not long after that, the cat was back yowling as loud as ever.  The neighbors indignantly asked what was going on.  The guy told them, ‘My cat is now a consultant to the other cats.’ ”

Sacramento is not lacking in political consulting firms.  Is Burton worried about entering a crowded and competitive field?

“If you have something to offer, people will come to see you,” Burton replies simply.

Although he spent nearly a decade in Congress, Burton is wary of the current political climate in the nation’s capital.

“I’m not sure anyone in Washington is having any fun,” he says.

Although his is not adverse to reminiscing, Burton prefers to look ahead.He admits, however, to sometimes having to be forceful in dealing with the complicated and strong personalities found in Washington and Sacramento.

“I could be a pain in the neck,” he says.



Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: