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Chapter Six— Burton
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Chapter Six—

Phil Burton was the hero. He was the standard by which all politicians were to be measured.
Willie Brown

Arnold Phillip Burton . Everything Phil Burton did, he did to excess. He chain-smoked three to four packs of cigarettes a day.[1] He had a gargantuan appetite for prime rib, and he often startled dinner companions by stabbing the meat off their plates and putting it on his own. He drank at all times of the day. His temper knew no bounds in public or private. He screamed profanities at political rivals, sometimes in front of their wives, and he was even harsher with his own aides. He had no regard whatsoever for his own appearance, and he once posed for a photograph with a piece of toilet paper stuck to his face while shaking hands with the president of the United States.[2] Burton was a brilliant political strategist, and he positively alarmed the downtown gentlemen of San Francisco's power structure. "I like people whose balls roar when they see injustice," he once said.

Clad in corduroys and a red sweater, Burton ventured where few white politicians bothered to go—inside the Negro churches of San Francisco.[3] Burton was not there just for show. He stuck around, mingled, and got to know people by their first name. He was rewarded by becoming one of the few whites on the executive committee of the NAACP branch in San Francisco, a position of prestige and honor in the Negro community of the 1950s.[4] Blacks felt a rare sense of ownership with Phillip Burton. He returned to them a fierce loyalty. "Phil Burton related to blacks very easily," said the Reverend Hamilton Boswell, the pastor of Jones Methodist Church, one of


San Francisco's largest black congregations of the 1950s. "We tried a lot of things with Phil, trying to break through. He was running for office and not getting anywhere. We went through all the failures together."[5]

Willie Brown was a San Francisco State College student and a youth leader at Boswell's church when he met Phillip Burton. Brown does not recall their first meeting, but it was probably at a Young Democrats event and, no doubt, his college buddy, John Burton, made the introduction. Brown remembered idolizing Phillip Burton from the start: "Phil Burton was the hero. He was the standard by which all politicians were to be measured. He was absolutely committed to poor people, he was committed to blacks, he was committed to women, he was committed on the civil liberties side. He was committed to everything you would think about, that you think ought to be done. Phil Burton was doing it, and Phil Burton was it, and we were all admirers of Phil Burton. Whatever his utterances were, we followed, almost religiously."[6]

Yet again, Willie Brown displayed his gift for cultivating the favor of older men. He had done so with his gambler uncle, Itsie Collins, and with Duncan Gillies, the professor who got him into San Francisco State. With each, Brown played the willing student, whether it was in learning the streets of the Fillmore or the college campus.

From Phillip Burton, Willie Brown learned the white world of politics.

Throughout his career, in fact, there would be a succession of older men who found Brown charming and talented when others detested him as arrogant and untrustworthy. Brown's talent for attaching himself to older men proved one of his most enduring and indispensable tools in his rise to power. Such men would give Brown pivotal boosts at key junctures. The list grew ever longer: Terry Francois, a black lawyer; Carlton Goodlett, a black publisher; Herb Caen, an influential white newspaper columnist; Randolph Collier, a wily state senator; Jesse Unruh, the Speaker of the California State Assembly; George McGovern, a presidential candidate.

Phillip Burton was a qualitative step forward for Willie Brown. Burton provided Brown with an entryway for his life's career and helped him at several critical junctions. The two found a commonality transcending their ages and races. Perhaps it was that both were raised basically without fathers, or that both were extroverted, or that both understood deep down what it was like to be the underdog. Whatever the reason for their chemistry, both men prospered by it. Brown found his greatest teacher and mentor, and Burton found his most talented student.

Burton did not have to look far to find injustice in segregated San Francisco. The size and vibrancy of the Fillmore district masked a political reality: no Negro held political office in San Francisco. None had even come close.[7] Negroes were making strides into elective office in Los Angeles, where roughly half of the state's black population lived.[8] But in San Francisco the levers of power belonged to an Irish political machine led by lawyer William Malone, who used his positions in the county and state Democratic party


organizations to wield power and dispense patronage beginning in the mid-1930s.[9] The Malone machine was never as organized or ruthless as its counterparts in the East, but it was not about to willingly give up any of its power to white liberals, and certainly not to Negroes. Burton set forth to dismantle the Malone machine. John Jacobs, in his superb biography of Phillip Burton, writes that "Burton did not want to work for Malone. He wanted to be Malone."[10]

Phillip Burton was born in 1926 in Cincinnati, the oldest of three boys. Their father, Thomas, lived apart from the rest of the family for much of his life, and his sons were reared largely without him. Thomas moved to Chicago, putting himself through school in his mid-thirties. He moved his family to Detroit and then to Milwaukee, where they lived while he went to medical school in Chicago. The boys were raised by their mother, Mildred, who was devoutly Roman Catholic. Finally, in 1941, Thomas Burton gathered up his family and moved it to San Francisco, where he had won an internship at Franklin Hospital, now the Ralph K. Davies Medical Center. The family found a house in the white working-class Sunset district near Golden Gate Park.

Not far from poverty for much of his life, Dr. Thomas Burton imbued his sons with an empathy for the poor that became the passion of his eldest son, and he never lost his interest in left-wing politics. But he and Phillip had a stormy relationship; Phillip could never please his father and felt estranged from him much of his life. Phillip ended up going to the University of Southern California, a private institution favored by the sons of rich conservatives, but he went on a World War II Navy scholarship. While in college, he went by "A. Phillip Burton" for a time, but he then dropped "Arnold" entirely from his name. Burton did not fit the social mold at USC.

Phillip became a student politician, building something of a left-wing organization on campus. Burton was a bulldog; a number of his fraternity brothers considered him downright obnoxious. He played campus politics as if it really mattered. His eyes bulging, he would face down an opponent or berate an underclassman who had failed him in some fashion. Many USC students were returning World War II veterans, and many had been radicalized by their experience and were not enamored of young, self-important frat-house politicians. Among them was Burton's principal rival in leftist student politics, Jesse Unruh, who had spent the war in the Aleutian Islands fixing airplanes. Their rivalry would extend into the California Legislature.

Phillip Burton graduated from USC in 1947 and returned home to San Francisco to go to law school and launch himself into politics. Malone was at the height of his power. Malone had delivered key votes for Truman's nomination as vice president in 1940, and now that Truman was president, Malone was his key ally in the Far West. Biographer Jacobs writes that Malone "set up intimate lunches for Truman in California and got a private White House audience whenever he visited Washington."[11] Malone was state


party chairman from 1944 to 1946 and set up a thriving tax law business in San Francisco, using his connections with the Internal Revenue Service and, when necessary, Truman.

Burton found a number of liberals in the Bay Area who were frustrated and excluded from Democratic party politics by Malone and his cronies. Burton began building a network and plotting his way to power. He befriended Dr. Carlton Goodlett, the pioneering publisher of the Negro Reporter newspaper, which later merged with another Negro newspaper to become the Sun-Reporter . Burton became active in the Young Democrats and as a law student ran for president of the San Francisco branch in 1950. He won the office by packing the meeting with friends, many of whom he had signed up as new YD members practically on the spot.

The technique would be repeated.

Burton continued to make inroads into the Negro community. He discerned earlier than others that if blacks could be organized and would vote as a bloc, they could be pivotal in tight elections in San Francisco.[12] On election night in November 1952, Burton and several of his YD friends went to the black Hunters Point housing projects to pass out coffee and doughnuts to voters. When they arrived, a precinct worker announced that the polling place was closing, shutting out about 150 blacks who were waiting to vote. Burton disappeared to make a telephone call to scream at white election officials. When he returned, the voters were allowed to cast their ballots. Word of the incident spread in the black community, and it was considered the start of his political base there.[13]

Burton's biographer, John Jacobs, wrote that his help for blacks stemmed from a deep understanding of the social and economic shifts San Francisco was undergoing: "San Francisco was undergoing a demographic sea change. Burton was the first politician with the imagination and intelligence to understand it, seize it and give it voice."[14]

As 1950 unfolded, boss Malone was beginning to have problems both from within and from outside his organization. A former law partner challenged him within the party, and Malone fell from grace with the Truman administration. In a purge of tax bureaus, Truman fired Malone's hand-picked IRS commissioner for Northern California, cutting him off from the patronage job that was his livelihood. Burton and his liberal friends were waiting to exploit any weakness. Malone quit as party boss in 1952, but he was determined that Burton not profit by it. The vestige of the Malone organization lived on.

Burton made his move for power by running for the state Assembly in 1954. He was beaten by a dead man. Burton's Democratic primary opponent, Cliff Berry, died on May 5. It was too late to reprint the ballots, and it looked as if Burton would have easy sailing to his first elective office. But what was left of the Malone organization decided to stop Burton. The organization produced the votes in the June primary for Berry. When the county central committee met to replace Berry on the ballot for the November 1954 election,


someone other than Burton was chosen as the Democratic nominee. Burton was defeated by a machine in his first attempt at electoral office.

Two years later Burton ran again for a seat in the Assembly. He began building his own machine. Using methods that were ahead of the time, he scientifically picked apart the district precinct by precinct, voter by voter. Aided by Rudy Nothenberg, a brilliant organizer, Burton left nothing to chance. He put together a coalition of whites, Chinese, blacks, and labor unions, and he was elected.

Burton went to Sacramento and his college rivalry with Unruh resumed. Burton soon learned the tricks of legislating and invented a few new ones. He took an interest in the politically powerless farmworkers of California, befriending a young labor organizer, Cesar Chavez. Burton pioneered using legislative committee hearings not just as a workplace for legislation but as a stage for turning the spotlight on a neglected problem. He held one such hearing in Stockton on farm labor issues and coached a civil rights worker, Dolores Huerta, on exactly what to do and whom to invite. His disciple, Willie Brown, emulated Burton's tactic in the years ahead. Burton became a master of the "spot bill" by introducing legislation that was essentially an empty shell, and then amending it late in the game with the real proposal when no one was looking. As a committee chairman, Burton ran roughshod over legislative colleagues, belittling their opinions and even casting their votes for them. Willie Brown emulated those tactics as well.

Burton's embrace of San Francisco's black community was not just show. He was among the few whites accorded the status of Citizen of the Year by the leading black newspaper in San Francisco, the Sun-Reporter . A photograph in the newspaper of Burton receiving the honor in March 1961 pictures him standing with Willie Brown and Terry Francois.[15] Burton was also a legend in the predominantly black public housing projects. Art Agnos, who came to San Francisco in 1966 as a young social worker, remembered hearing about him as he investigated complaints of discrimination for the San Francisco Public Housing Authority. "And everywhere I went in these projects the first couple of years that I was in San Francisco, I'd hear that if you really got a problem, go see Phil Burton."[16]

The list of California politicians who got their start with Burton is lengthy. They include George Moscone, who became mayor of San Francisco; Rudy Nothenberg, future chief administrative officer of San Francisco; Bill Lockyer, who became leader of the state Senate; and, of course, Willie Brown. Phillip Burton also tapped his brother, John, to run for an Assembly seat and eventually for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. "Without Phillip being the catalyst and the driving force, I don't think either Willie, I, or George ever would have been in office," said John Burton. In his view, many of the most prominent stars in Phillip's camp, including John himself, were not considering a political career until Phillip "plucked" them and convinced them that they should be "running for office and righting wrongs."[17]


Ahead were fights and more fights, triumphs and setbacks, bizarre tragedies and deaths. As he rose in politics, Burton showed how savvy liberals could put together improbable coalitions and wield power. Once he reached Congress, Burton delivered blocs of liberal votes for tobacco, sugar, and cotton subsidies. In return, he won southern votes for minimum-wage bills and occupational safety and environmental legislation. Phillip Burton was the master of a brand of raw, street-smart politics perfectly suited to young, brash Willie Brown.


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Chapter Six— Burton
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