In summary

Those who can trace their political lineage directly, or indirectly, to Phil Burton include Nancy Pelosi, Gavin Newsom and Willie Brown.

Profile Image

By James Richardson, Special to CalMatters

James Richardson is a former senior writer with The Sacramento Bee and the author of “Willie Brown: A Biography,” Richardson’s current book project, The Abolitionist’s Journal, is about his ancestors.

There was a subtext beneath the surface of the Democratic Convention unnoticed by the national media: The influence beyond the grave of Phil Burton, the progenitor and impresario of modern, hard-edged liberal politics in California. 

Burton represented San Francisco in Congress from 1964 until his sudden death of an aortic aneurysm in 1983. Burton’s legislative legacy included the preservation of enormous tracts of wilderness across the country including the Golden Gate National Seashore. And he came close to being elected Speaker of the House before he died.

Burton’s imprint on California Democratic politics went far beyond his own legislative accomplishments.

Those who can trace their political lineage directly, or indirectly, to Burton include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, former state Senate Pro Tem John Burton (Phil’s younger brother) – and now vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris

I found myself in recent days wishing I could talk to my late Sacramento Bee colleague and good friend John Jacobs, who wrote a masterful biography of Burton titled “A Rage for Justice,” published in 1995. What would John make of the rise of Harris? What would John make of Donald Trump?

I began thinking about this while watching Pelosi interviewed on a Washington Post podcast. Pelosi was asked why she had endorsed Joe Kennedy III, grandson of Robert Kennedy, in a Democratic Senate primary in Massachusetts against a Democratic incumbent. She replied that her family has a long connection to the Kennedys through her father who was a politician. 

Left unsaid is Pelosi owes her Congressional seat to Burton who had close ties to Bobby Kennedy. After Burton died, his wife Sala took his seat. When she lay dying in 1987, Sala recruited Pelosi to run for the seat. Pelosi had long been an organizer and money-raiser in San Francisco politics. 

While Pelosi inherited Burton’s seat in Congress, Willie Brown inherited Burton’s role as a powerbroker in California politics. Brown has been part of the Burton circle since befriending John Burton when they were students at San Francisco State. 

Harris, too young to have known Phil Burton, dated Brown when he was Assembly Speaker. In 1994, he appointed her to two state commissions. A year later, Harris was by his side when he ran for mayor. On election night, she handed him a blue cap emblazoned with “Da Mayor.” Their relationship ended soon after, but her career took off.

When Harris ran for president last year, internet memes buzzed that she had an “extramarital affair” with Brown. However, Brown had been estranged from his wife, Blanche, for nearly 40 years and has never made a secret of the women he has dated. 

It is inaccurate to call Burton’s organization a machine in the old sense of East Coast politics, though to this day it is still called “The Burton Machine.” He was as much as anything a talent scout, recruiting promising politicians committed to his progressive politics but expedient in pursuing power. As the mastermind of the 1980 reapportionment, Burton produced district maps so contorted he bragged they were his “contribution to modern art.” 

As an organization, the Burton Machine could be loose. Terence Hallinan, in the Burton circle from the early days, was unseated as San Francisco District Attorney by none other than Harris.

My only encounter with Phil Burton was when I was an 18-year-old delegate pledged to George McGovern at the 1972 Democratic Convention. Burton was co-chair of the California delegation, along with Willie Brown and UFW organizer Dolores Huerta. My chief memory is how Burton saved the day for Sen. John Tunney when we came close to refusing to seat the senator as a delegate. Burton lectured us that he didn’t like Tunney either, but we had to seat him or we would embarrass our presidential candidate. We seated Tunney. 

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions: