John Burton: A Hero of our Time

by Randy Shaw on December 2, 2004

John Burton’s political career has come to an end. The media has emphasized his crusty, old-school style, and his commitment to fighting for the poor. But all of these “end of an era” stories have failed to capture the indispensable role that Burton played in every progressive victory in the state legislature over the past several years. Burton was a political giant, and it is time to give him the full credit he deserves.

I met John Burton when he was making a political comeback by running for the state assembly in 1988. I attended campaign endorsement sessions to bash Burton for supporting a failed development project in the Tenderloin a few years earlier. Rather than put me on his enemies list after winning-the customary way politicians treat campaign opponents-Burton told me I was right to criticize him and that he was eager to help the Tenderloin in any way possible.

Burton did not have much power in the Assembly, which was controlled until 1995 by San Francisco’s other Assemblymember, Speaker Willie Brown. But Burton got his chance when he was elected to the State Senate in 1996, and hit full stride when he won an upset victory to replace Bill Lockyer as Senate leader in 1998.

I got very involved with state politics in 1997 as coordinator of a campaign to reinstate the state renter’s tax credit. The $60 credit had been suspended by Governor Pete Wilson and the Legislature in the early 1990’s when times were tough, but whereas tax increases taxes imposed on the wealthy during those years had been allowed to sunset, the renters credit was not being restored despite the state’s good economic times.

Our campaign won major newspaper endorsements across the state, even though restoring the credit had a $500 million annual price tag. Pete Wilson adamantly opposed the credit’s return, arguing that it primarily benefited upper-income college students.

In those days, a Gang of Five-Wilson and the legislative leaders of both parties from both houses– decided the state budget. Bill Lockyer was the key Democrat, and he abandoned the renters credit early in the bargaining (though we had a letter from him endorsing reinstatement)

Most of the Sacramento groups lobbying for the poor also opposed the credit’s reinstatement, preferring the money go instead to fund programs. Ironically, while we did have many Democrats support, it was conservative Republican Tom McClintock who held up the state budget for thirty minutes while he pressed the Governor to reinstate the renters credit.

After Burton took power in 1998, Wilson was confronted with a much more committed and savvy adversary. We renewed our statewide renters credit campaign, but this time tenants had John Burton on their side.

In a stroke of pure genius, Burton was able to get the credit partially reinstated and then discovered a little known tax provision that gave a small refund for disabled and senior renters. Burton figured it would be easier to get tenants money under this program, and that Wilson would be less likely to cut a program geared to the most vulnerable.

The result: John Burton got $250 million returned to tenants that year and in subsequent years. We are talking about over $1 billion for tenants.

Did any media cover this story? No. Like so many of his amazing accomplishments, Burton allowed them to occur without sending a press release or seeking publicity.

The next year we asked Burton to address the inequities of the Ellis Act. Republican judges had essentially invented a new Ellis Act whose terms conflicted with the text of the legislation but which supposedly fulfilled the legislature’s “intent.”

Burton did everything possible to address all of the outrages connected with the Ellis Act. At the end of the day he could not accomplish all that was needed, but he did get 120 notice requirements for all tenants and one year for seniors. He also got amendments passed that expressly allowed local governments to regulate demolitions and renovations post-Ellis.

Had the San Francisco Association of Realtors not interfered with the deal Burton brokered with tenant groups and the state Apartment Association, all of the fighting in San Francisco about TIC’s and condo conversions over the past years would have been avoided. Burton’s plan would have increased the city’s annual condo limit by 500%, to 1000, in exchange for bringing TIC’s under the cap and amending Ellis to expressly govern TIC’s.

Burton went on to ensure passage of a string of tenant protection bills, and created the greatest record for tenant legislation in California history. He accomplished this while maintaining good relations with landlord lobbyists and with the real estate industry.

In many cases, Burton did not make himself the sponsor of key legislation so his central role in its enactment was overlooked. Other times-such as occurred in the all-out battle waged by Mark Leno to exempt SRO’s from the Ellis Act-our very ability to move an issue was attributable to Democrats knowing Burton wanted it done.

Burton also did more for affordable housing than any legislator in state history. He forced Gray Davis to spend $500 million in general funds for housing in 2000 after the Governor shortchanged the issue in his first budget. Burton then spearheaded the successful $2.1 billion state affordable housing bond in 2002.

John Burton may be the only powerful state or national politician in the past two decades in America who used his clout to increase funding for welfare recipients with kids. Politicians like Bill Clinton scored political points by cutting welfare; Burton fought successfully to raise grossly inadequate welfare levels in the state.

While doing more than anyone had ever done for tenants and poor Californians, Burton also was the preeminent ally of labor unions and environmentalists. He also stopped so many bad pieces of legislation that his success playing defense greatly added to what his progressive reforms.

It would take a book to recount John Burton’s progressive achievements, and hopefully someone will write one. But when that book is written the author will have to address a very unfortunate reality—John Burton was far more appreciated outside of San Francisco than by his own constituents.

Why was the state’s greatest progressive leader often not admired by those claiming to yearn for effective progressive leadership? Three reasons.

First, few activists under forty knew Burton. Never having served in local office, and not running in a contested race since 1988, Burton did not have relationships with the many progressive San Francisco activists, particularly those who got involved politically either through the Ammiano or Gonzalez campaigns.

Second, the San Francisco Bay Guardian not only refused to endorse Burton, but they pinned on him the inaccurate label of being part of the so-called Brown-Burton machine.
The stated reason for the non-endorsement was Burton’s refusal to disclose his law clients, an issue that never concerned the welfare mothers whose benefits he increased.

The “Brown-Burton” machine label unfairly tainted Burton with the far less progressive and controversial policies of Willie Brown, and created a false impression for younger activists unfamiliar with the Burton record.

Ultimately, Burton’s biggest image problem locally was caused by his failure to take credit for his achievements. Burton had a big ego, no question there. But he simply had no interest in publicizing his landmark achievements.

In John Jacob’s must-read biography of John’s brother Phil (“A Rage for Justice-the Passion and Politics of Philip Burton”) he reveals how the elder Burton also had no interest in getting public credit for his good works. So this atypical quality for a politician was likely a family trait.

John Burton’s departure from state political office is a terrible loss for progressive interests. There’s no point making believe that he can be replaced, or that the fight for social and economic justice will not be more difficult in his absence.

He was the best. I’m glad to have been able to see him in action.

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