When John Burton’s legislative career ended in 2004 due to term limits, I wrote “John Burton: A Hero of our Time.” Burton has spent the last decade adding to his progressive heroism, and on August 10 at 9am is being honored with the naming of the “John Burton Highway” at the Stern Grove entrance at 19th Avenue and Sloat Blvd.
When I think of all tenants accomplished during Burton’s tenure and how little major rent legislation has been enacted since, his absence in Sacramento has proved even more significant.
It’s no coincidence that the last major piece of tenant legislation passed the Legislature in 2003, the year before Burton left. It was AB 1217, which exempted SRO hotels from the state Ellis Act. I have long praised then-Assembly member Mark Leno’s passionate fight for passage of this critical bill. But often overlooked is that we didn’t have to fight over Ellis reform in the State Senate because John Burton was in charge.
I wish someone would write the type of book about Burton that John Jacobs wrote about his brother Phil. A book is needed to chronicle the breadth of John Burton’s accomplishments , because so often he did not promote his achievements.
For example, I wonder how many activists know that the only reason senior and disabled tenants get one year notices under the Ellis Act is because John Burton got the original Ellis law amended to make this happen. Or that Burton saved thousands of rent controlled housing units from demolition due to his amending the Ellis Act so that local demolition controls were not preempted.
We won a lot of tenant legislation through Burton despite the same big money real estate industry opposition we see today. The difference is that Burton had an extraordinary capacity to get difficult legislative challenges done.
Hero to the Disenfranchised
I learned in researching my book on the Tenderloin that in 1966 John Burton helped the Tenderloin get federal anti-poverty money to assist the many young queers who had fled to the community after being kicked out of their homes. Burton’s advocacy required him to tell groups in the rest of the city that they would have to take less money so that the white young queers in the Tenderloin would get an equal share.
Think of this. It’s 1966, and the gay and lesbian community has almost no political clout in San Francisco. The Tenderloin neighborhood also had little influence.
Yet John Burton put his political prestige on the line for both.
There was nothing politically advantageous for John Burton to potentially alienate his allies in the Mission, Chinatown, Western Addition and Bayview-Hunters Point by telling them they needed to share anti-poverty dollars with the Tenderloin. These groups would get less to help a group Martin Meeker aptly described as “the queerly disadvantaged.”
As I describe in my book, activists in some of these neighborhoods were outraged over the Tenderloin getting funds.
But John Burton did what was right, as he did throughout his career. And while the gay and lesbian movement and the Tenderloin neighborhood had few political allies in 1966, they had John and Phil Burton on their side.
A Progressive Mentor
I also wonder how many know that John Burton was the key political mentor boosting the careers of both Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi. Boxer always acknowledges that she would not even have been elected to Congress without John Burton, not to mention serve multiple terms in the Senate.
Nancy Pelosi also owes her political career to John Burton. That’s one of the reasons Pelosi will be present at the ceremony this morning when the John Burton Highway is formally designated.
The media depiction of John Burton as this gruff, profane, old school politician typically excludes his mentorship of progressive female office holders. But its no coincidence that those mentored by Burton are not only progressive, but effective.
The San Francisco Labor Council and its leader, Tim Paulson, will also be at the ceremony. This is fitting, as Burton was the leading advocate for California labor during his entire tenure in the state Legislature.
California labor has been doing great in recent years, which coincides with John Burton’s tenure as head as of the California Democratic Party. Labor once had too many fair weather friends in the state legislature, but now these politicians know they will hear from Burton—privately and publicly if necessary—if they don’t keep their commitments to working people.
While some see labor and environmentalists as facing potential conflicts, John Burton was the champion of both. He was as popular with the Sierra Club as he was with the California Federation of Labor.
Will any California politician again be the go to legislator for labor, environmentalists and tenants? Clearly, John Burton has set a very high standard.
The media always liked to cover John Burton swearing at other politicians or threatening them. But he always did so on behalf of working people and the disenfranchised. He was always on their side as they battled powerful interests.
John puts up a gruff exterior but his defining character trait is a big heart.
I’ve never come across anyone in politics who combines caring for the disenfranchised with an eagerness to act on their behalf and a skill set to actually get things done. I feel so fortunate to have worked with John Burton for decades.
Let’s hope the naming of the John Burton Highway is only the first of many honors he gets in San Francisco.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He discusses Burton in his new book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco,Bay Area / California