Democratic chairman John Burton turns Daily Show star

John Burton had never watched The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, didn’t really care about its host and sure as hell didn’t know who this John Oliver fellow was.

But when producers for the show called and asked if he’d be willing to be interviewed by Oliver, Burton agreed.

And so, the San Francisco-based chairman for the state’s Democratic party met the correspondent at a Fisherman’s Wharf hotel and spent 45 minutes discussing’s push to overturn a tax law designed to reduce California’s $26 billion deficit.

The resulting five-minute-plus video, which aired December 5, 2011, not only lampooned the Golden State’s ballot-initiative process; its profanity-laced assertions made an instant Internet star out of Burton.

And why not? This was classic Burton:

“It’s totally fucked up. It was put in place to protect people from the special interests. It’s now become a tool of the special interests to screw the people,” he told Oliver, fuming over the state’s so-called “direct democracy” system that allows citizens to gather signatures to put just about anything on the ballot.

“I’m sure it’s not as bad as you’re saying,” Oliver replied.

Burton didn’t mince words.

“I’ll give you a real bad fucking example—[Proposition] 13 has fucked up the state forever because there’s not enough money for the schools, not enough money for state services. … It happened because California bought a bag of bullshit and voted for it.”

For those keeping count, that’s four swear words—including three F-bombs—in just the first two minutes of the clip.

Kind of tame by Burton standards, actually.

Love him or hate him, Burton is a career politician who’s logged nearly 50 years in state and national politics. Now, as head of the party, he’s tasked with guiding election efforts through what’s shaping up to be a particularly divisive year.

For some, he’s the ideal fit—a larger-than-life personality tapped into politics with a mile-long roster of allies that includes the likes of former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and actor Warren Beatty.

Burton also carries a reputation as a champion for the state’s poor and needy. During his lengthy career he expanded the Cal Grant college-scholarship program and spearheaded legislation benefiting the mentally ill homeless and the state’s Medi-Cal patients; in 2006, he launched the John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes, which provides assistance to kids and young adults who are on the streets or in the foster system.

Now, Burton’s experience makes him particularly valuable to state Democrats, says longtime friend Tom Hannigan.

“He’s effective because he gets it—he understands how you get things done and is a laser about certain things,” says Hannigan, a former state assemblyman who represented Solano County from 1978 to 1996.

Still, there’s another side to Burton that leaves some questioning his prolific role and power.

There’s that proclivity for swearing, of course, and a quick-to-ignite temper.

There is, also, Burton’s admittedly addictive personality, an abuse of cocaine and alcohol that once forced him out of politics and into rehab as well as a 2008 sexual harassment suit levied against him by a former foundation executive.

All this and a lingering perception among some that Burton is an outdated good ol’ boys relic, a sexist throwback to the politics of yesteryear.

“John is the old guard and he thinks of things in relation to the old guard,” says Delaine Eastin, former state superintendent and a Democratic assemblywoman who represented parts of Alameda and Santa Clara counties from 1986 to 1992.

His extreme personality, she adds, can be more embarrassment than entertainment.

“His irascibility doesn’t always reflect well on the party.”

John Burton’s heard it all before. Mostly, he just shrugs it off.

“It’s not that I don’t care—I don’t like people to have the wrong idea about me,” he says. “But, if the idea is inaccurate, if someone said I was dishonest, well, that would piss me off.”

Of course, it doesn’t take much to do so.

It’s an early January morning on the day after Iowa’s Republican caucus, and Burton’s letting the expletives fly unchecked as he walks through his downtown San Francisco office, decked out in a natty brown leather bomber jacket.

“Phones are a lot quicker than this electronic shit—don’t send an email, get her on the phone—it’s more fucking efficient,” he snaps at an employee who, likely used to his boss’s temperament, doesn’t flinch.

Burton rarely bothers with the politics of politeness and to engage in a conversation, a reporter must think fast and check her sensitivity at the door.

For example:

Who do you think the eventual Republican nominee will be?

“How the shit should I know?”


Will public perceptions of Democrats as the less aggressive of political parties ultimately prove damaging to the campaign?

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

His impatience is hardly reserved for staffers or reporters. Throughout the morning, he sighs with exasperation every time his cellphone vibrates.

“Oh jeez, hi Nancy,” he says with an eye roll when Rep. Pelosi calls on him for the second time in a half-hour.

“OK, 2:30 at the Fairmount—I’ll do my best to do my duty.”

Finally, when the phone buzzes for the umpteenth time, he just pulls out its battery with disgust—a simple enough solution, really.

Later, as Burton recounts The Daily Show story, the chairman’s irritation flares.

At the start of the televised interview, Burton explains, he didn’t know the camera was rolling and so, naturally, answered Oliver’s first question in usual fashion.

“Then I realized the camera was on, so I throttled it back a bit, and the producer said, ‘No, no, no—spice it up,’” Burton says. “They want you to swear, and then they just bleep it out in the end.”

Still, there’s been an upside.

“Do you know how many hits I got?” he asks with just a hint of a smile.

Hundreds of thousands, as it turns out. The clip, posted and reposted on the Web, introduced Burton to a legion of young voters who otherwise might have viewed him as another conservative grandfatherly type.

“Just saw you on The Daily Show,” posted one fan on Burton’s official Facebook page. “Kudos to you for the straight talk.”

Burton gets a kick out of the recent attention.

“I’m a little older, and there’s this idea that because I’ve been successful in politics that somehow I’m not a left liberal,” he says. “That always bugged me, that perception that I’m able to do stuff because I’m part of the establishment.”

Lately, Burton’s been exasperated with the establishment—the current Republican caucus sideshow in particular.

He believes there’s “a real problem” with Mitt Romney, finds Rick Perry to be a complete “dolt” and views Newt Gingrich’s political resurgence as nothing less than baffling.

“It just tells you how bankrupt the Republican party is for candidates,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief that a politician once penalized by the House Ethics Committee, is enjoying such a strong showing in the primaries.

“It’s just bizarre—the only [Republican candidate] I kind of respect is Ron Paul,” he says.

Of course, if anyone understands the nature of politics, it’s John Burton.

Born December 15, 1932, in Cincinnati, Ohio, his family eventually moved to San Francisco, where his father worked as a doctor and, Burton says, taught him the importance of helping others.

Once, when he was young, the pair was walking down a seedy stretch of Market Street when his father stopped in front of a blind man sitting on the sidewalk with a cup.

“He reaches into his pocket and puts something in the cup,” Burton recalls.

“He told me, ‘I never want to see you pass a blind man without putting something in his cup—I never want to see you not help someone less fortunate than you.’”

Burton’s recounted this story numerous times before—it’s an important part of his narrative and defines, at least in part, his political philosophy.

Without a doubt, says Warren Beatty, who has known Burton for decades, the politician’s father and older brother, the latter a Democratic congressman until his death, made an indelible imprint on Burton.

“He has an almost genetic sense of fairness and social responsibility,” Beatty says. “It’s in his blood.”

Burton will explain it in simpler, more graphic terms.

“The fun of this is helping poor people,” he says. “Fuck, what’s better than that? What’s better than helping people not able to help themselves; who, through no fault of their own, were dealt a shitty hand of cards?”

John Lowell Burton earned a bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State University in 1950, and, after a subsequent stint in the U.S. Army, returned to the Bay Area where he tended bar and studied law. Burton passed the bar in 1961 and worked as a deputy attorney general until 1964, when he was elected to the California State Assembly, representing San Francisco and Marin counties in the seat that his brother Phillip Burton vacated for Congress.

The two brothers’ political styles couldn’t have been more different, the younger Burton says now.

Philip Burton, who died at 56 in 1983 from a brain aneurysm, was as noted for his commitment to issues such as AIDS research and wildlife preservation as he was for a fiery, if somewhat humorless temper that could rage with indefinite heat.

“Tip O’Neill once said, ‘Johnny, if your brother had your bullshit or blarney, he wouldn’t be Speaker of the House—he’d be president,’” Burton remembers. “I was just more easygoing than he was; I could lose my temper, and in two seconds be making a joke about it.”

Certainly, Burton saw the sport in it. Politics, he’d sometimes tell his childhood friend George Moscone, was a lot like basketball.

“It’s us against them,” he’d say. “It’s fun, and you can do stuff for people.”

Burton had his fun, serving five terms in the assembly before getting elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1974.

Then, in 1982, Burton’s political career came to a halt when, instead of seeking reelection, he entered rehab to treat an addiction alcohol and cocaine.

Those looking for deep, soul-searching revelations about this period will likely be disappointed.

“Am I happy that I was an alcoholic, addictive guy? No. Did I learn something going through the treatment? Yeah, so what the hell?”

After treatment, Burton, nearly broke, went back to law and rebuilt his life and finances. His political hiatus, however, was relatively brief. In 1988, Willie Brown called his old friend and urged him to make a bid for his old assembly seat.

So, Burton returned to Sacramento. He was elected to the state Senate in 1996, and in 1998 stepped into his role as senate president pro tempore. Finally, in 2005, term limits forced Burton to leave office for good.

Throughout his run, Burton enjoyed a bit of celebrity status, famous for frequent outbursts and, on occasion, the silly, grand gesture.

Once, for example, during his time in Washington, D.C., Burton was sitting with Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd in a restaurant watching a congressman on a TV with the sound off. Onscreen, the politician moved about wildly, clearly agitated about something.

“That guy must be making one helluva speech,” Dodd said to Burton. “Wouldn’t it be funny if some guy went out on the floor and actually did that?”

Dodd bet his friend $25 that he wouldn’t have the guts for such a dare and so, of course, Burton did, taking to the assembly floor to address the federal deficit in a big and showy—but utterly quiet—display of theatrics that involved a lot of finger wagging and exaggerated mugging.

“Tip O’Neill finally found out what I was doing and [stopped me, saying], ‘The member’s time has expired,’” Burton says.

For every joke or gag, of course, came a fierce burst of anger—a rush of expletives, a slammed door, a heated exit.

On more than one occasion during his stint as Senate president in Sacramento, Burton stormed out of a political summit only to find himself stuck in the hallway, nursing his ego.

“I used to get stuck in these meetings with the governor and the Republicans and something would happen, and I’d just blow up and storm out of the room,” he says. “Then I’d be outside going, ‘How do I go back in there?’”

Does he wish he could better control that temper?

“Fuck, I’m 79 years old.”

Point taken. But, still …

“Shit, obviously it’s gotten in the way—you take who I am and what I’ve done and what I got to be—in theory, if not in fact, the second most powerful man in the state for five or six years,” he says.

“A temper is nothing to be proud of, [but] for me it’s more of a flash boiling point, something just hits me and then whoosh.”

But, despite this temper, Burton’s also noted for his ability to get along with politicians on both sides of the aisle and, famously, had a better working relationship with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger than Gov. Gray Davis.

“Gray was a root canal,” Burton says. “Arnold was full of shit, [but] I’d say, ‘You’re the best bullshitter I’ve ever known—and I’ve know the greats.’”

And, like Schwarzenegger, says those who worked with him, Burton’s larger-than-life personality can be both intimidating and fun.

“John has a highly developed sense of permissible language—that enables him to get to the point,” says Beatty who once enlisted his friend to lobby Sen. John McCain on greenhouse-gas emissions legislation.

For Beatty, Burton’s candor is refreshing in a climate dominated by confusing doublespeak and he inspired, at least in part, personality traits for the title character in Bulworth, Beatty’s 1998 film about a disillusioned liberal politician who adopts a new policy of bluntness.

“The movie wasn’t directly based on him,” Beatty says, dispelling the long-circulating rumor Bulworth directly traced Burton’s political life. “But it did come from similar feelings of impatience with the nature of our system.”

That impatience can be a positive characteristic, say those who’ve worked closely with Burton.

“He’s a great boss … and a unique character. You just have to figure out how to work with him, what makes him comfortable,” says Alison Harvey, Burton’s former chief of staff.

That’s not without its challenges, she adds.

“He was very inventive with the word ‘fuck,’” Harvey says with a laugh. “He’d insert it in the middle of a word. If you were trying to explain something to him he’d say, ‘I under-fucking-stand it.’”

But, Harvey adds, Burton is also quick to apologize, if necessary.

“He’s very straightforward—I think that takes some people aback—but he’ll cut right to the chase, and you always know where he stands on something,” she says. “He’s very honest in a political sense.”

For Hannigan, Burton’s behavior is rooted in lightning-fast impulses.

“He gets pissed off and fires off,” Hannigan says. “But, you know, he can be a charmer, too—especially with the women.”

That so-called charm, however, has landed Burton into trouble on occasion.

In 2008, the former executive director for Burton’s foundation filed a $10 million lawsuit against her employer. In the suit, Kathleen Discroll claimed Burton sexually harassed her by swearing at her and making sexually graphic comments in her presence.

Burton denied the charges and the suit was settled later that year on confidential terms.

Legally, neither party can discuss the case, but Burton does offer this:

“It was bullshit.”

While the truth may never be public, it’s clear that Burton raises ire among some colleagues.

For Eastin, he represents an enduring “systematic sexism” in politics.

“When he was president pro tem of the senate, he helped to push out eight women [through reapportionment],” Eastin says.

“The leaders of both parties, on both sides of the aisles in both houses, got together and took care of the old boys club,” she says. “Here we were struggling to get additional women elected, and they pushed out six Democratic women and two Republicans.”

Burton’s position at the helm of California’s Democratic Party, Eastin adds, is troubling.

“I wish we had someone who was of a new generation,” she says. “We need value changes in the party.”

Burton, for his part, dismisses Eastin’s claims with characteristic bluster.

“She’s full of shit,” he says. “Talk to all the women that I helped elect over the years—Barbara Boxer, Nancy Pelosi—I never got grief from them.”

Twice married and divorced, Burton is currently single; his only child is daughter Kimiko Burton, who currently works in San Francisco as an attorney.

The younger Burton scoffs at the notion that her father is sexist or out of touch.

“Yes, he’s a man of a certain age and he did come up in an era when things were different,” she says. “He’s off-color—but he’s also very empathetic in a way that people don’t realize.”

She also dismisses talk that the senior Burton’s political background served as more of a liability than an asset in 2002 when she ran for the office of public defender in San Francisco.

Kimiko Burton, who counts Willie Brown as her godfather, lost that election, but she says, that was more a reflection of a sea change in the attitude toward Brown than her father’s personal baggage.

“It was a time when there was this so-called progressive board that came in and their platform was to run against … anyone who was perceived as being attached to [Brown’s] administration,” she says.

Burton credits her father with instilling in her—as well as her two young children—a need to help others.

“My father will get a new blanket and then drive around the streets looking for someone to give the old blanket to,” she says. “Now when I drive around with my kids, my son wants to know why there are people who are homeless … that’s because of my dad.”

“He has a certain bluster,” she adds. “But [people] have no idea what he’s done on a grand scale in politics and … with his foundation.”

Once, she says, her father took her to a tennis match, and when she asked who he wanted to win, he picked the lower-ranked player.

“Why are we rooting for her?” Burton asked then.

“Because she’s the underdog,” he answered.

“He informed that part of who I am,” she says now. “All things being equal, you want the little guy to win.”

These days, when he’s not working, Burton babysits his grandchildren, plays racquetball, and his biggest addiction, he swears, are the six cappuccinos it takes to get out the door in the morning.

Right now, pumped up on caffeine, he’s giving guff to a young woman named Rebecca who’s stopped by, tiny dog in tow, to pick up some paperwork.

“If that dog piddles on my rug,” he grumbles to the girl, who sports close-cropped hair and a nose ring.

“He’s never going to piddle on the rug,” she replies good-naturedly.

“He did …”

“Once in his life,” she retorts.

“This kid,” he says, lowering his voice after she’s left, “she came out of the foster-care system, and I sort of emotionally adopted her.”

He met the 24-year-old Rebecca at a foundation event and, fascinated with her elaborately tattooed arms and “16 colors of hair,” struck up a conversation.

“I asked her about her nose ring—what did she do with it when it rained or she had a cold and her nose was running,” he says. “I wondered if it got in the way.”

The ring, as it turns out, was just a clip. The tattoos, she added, were covered up for job interviews.

“I told her, ‘Well that seems stupid.’ And she said, ‘It might seem stupid to you, but I’ll do what I have to do become a nurse, so it’s kind of easy.’”

Burton later tracked the girl down, gave her money to buy work clothes and helped her secure a small nursing-school scholarship.

“She’s a piece of work, [but] she’s real.”

She’s also the type, say those who know Burton, who inspires his politics.

“As most people age, [they] start accepting more and believing less is possible,” says Amy Lemley, policy director for the John Burton Foundation. “But not John.”

Faced with the statistics on homeless kids who’ve aged out of the foster-care system, Lemley says, Burton took action.

“He said, ‘Let’s make the federal government keep paying.’”

As a result, Burton and his foundation successfully lobbied to extend the cut-off of benefits for foster kids from 18 to 21 years old.

“He has a broad, ambitious and progressive vision,” she says.

Currently, of course, much of Burton’s energy is focused on the upcoming election. On February 10, he’ll travel to San Diego to represent the party at the California Democrats State Convention.

So far, he feels pretty confident about the party’s 2012 prospects. He’s certain President Obama will serve another term, believes Sen. Dianne Feinstein will be reelected, and thinks Democrats can reclaim more seats in Congress as well as the state Legislature.

There’s a lot at stake—not just for California but for the entire country, he says. And as the Occupy movement continues to spread, he wants to see citizens take their money out of big banks and reclaim economic power.

“Jobs are shrinking, economically it’s just getting worse,” he says. “This is an interesting year—people are rightfully very unhappy about a lot of things.”

And after the election, after his term as the state’s party chairman is over? What’s next for the man they once called Iron John?

“I’ll keep doing what I’m doing,” he says.

Are lingering rumors that Burton might, one day, run for mayor of San Francisco unfounded?

“I could have run for mayor three times—if I’d wanted to do that, I would have done it when I was younger,” he says. “I’ll just concentrate on improving the lives of foster children.”

So that’s it, then?

“Then I’ll die.”