Sala Burton, on deathbed, sought Nancy Pelosi to succeed her

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks before the Democratic national summer meeting in San Francisco, 2019. (Photo: Sheila Fitzgerald, via Shutterstock)

As Sala Burton lay dying in a hospital bed in 1987, she picked her successor to represent San Francisco in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I saw her gritting her teeth, you know, in pain,” her brother-in law,  John Burton, recalled in an Open California oral history. “And she says… I want you, talking to us, to support Nancy for my seat.”

“I’m hearing everything that anybody who has watched Nancy Pelosi in Congress, her rise to Speaker,” said Burton. “Sala saw all this. I mean, saw it. I mean she’s talking about, ’She’s operational, she’s smart, she’s right on the issues, she’s this and that.’”

Once safely in the House, Pelosi won 27 times in primaries and general contests. She crushed her challengers.

With those words, Pelosi embarked on a career of remarkable and well-documented success as speaker of the house when Democrats were in control and minority leader when they were not.

Sala Burton succeeded her husband, Phillip, who died of a heart attack in 1983 at the age of 56. Together, they served 23 years in Washington. Pelosi has put in 35 years.

Pelosi started by winning a special election in 1987 in which she faced her most serious opposition in a primary, led by the late Harry Britt. A gay San Francisco supervisor, Britt won 32 percent of the vote, narrowly losing to Pelosi’s 36 percent in the crowded field of 13 candidates.

She breezed through the general election and has never faced much opposition. Once safely in the House, Pelosi won 27 times in primaries and general contests. She crushed her challengers who ranged from the Green Party and Peace and Freedom to Libertarians. A handful of Democrats and even a few “declined to states” gave it a shot.

If all the votes are totaled, Pelosi has 3.9 million while her opponents racked up little more than a million.

One of her most persistent foes is John Dennis, a Republican, who, like Pelosi, lives in Pacific Heights. He has run against her a half dozen times, including this year.

“Let’s face facts,” his website says. “Nancy Pelosi is the ultimate swamp monster. She doesn’t care about you, your family, your suffering, or the future of this nation”

At last count, he was trailing her by 178,166 votes.

Editor’s Note: Rob Gunnison is the former administrator of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and a member of the board of directors of Open California, publisher of Capitol Weekly.

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