John Burton has an idea. Since the release of the Mueller report, Democrats have been anxiously—some would argue impatiently— awaiting the next chess move by their party leaders. As the longtime chairman of the California Democratic Party, Burton knows a thing or two about strategic moves. And though he stepped down from serving as the chair in 2017, he’s clearly still in the game.
“I just had this crazy idea,” he says over his cellphone, walking into another room of his San Francisco law office. He goes on to describe the idea for the next few minutes before walking back to his desk. “OK, Nancy,” he says, “I won’t keep you. But I had a crazy idea.”
Yes, that Nancy.
Before the interview even begins, the San Francisco native, now 86, offers a glimpse into his life—a man whose cellphone contacts are all someone would need to start a group chat among the country’s most powerful democrats. A man whose office is surrounded by historical photos and memorabilia he’s amassed over his decadeslong political career, including a mock cover of Time magazine that shows a younger Burton with both middle fingers raised. He struck a similar pose in May 2017 at the California Democratic Party State Convention when the then-chairman led the crowd in a “Duck Donald Trump” chant. Another frame has a T-shirt that reads “I yell because I care,” on which someone wrote: “Thanks for caring us to death.”
Indeed, he still cares—very much. Asked what he thinks about all the Democratic candidates declaring their presidential runs for 2020, he quickly responds: “Tells you how ducked up this country is, I guess.” He pauses before his next thought. “Everyone’s running. If you watch what’s happened, it was always about Bernie, then Biden; if not Biden, it’s the next person. There’s always this flavor of the month. Now this guy from Indiana, whose name I can’t pronounce, he’s impressed the hell out of me.”
He’s referring to Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old Democratic mayor of South Bend who would be the first openly gay commander-in-chief if elected. Oh, and according to his husband, Chasten, his last name is pronounced “boot-a-judge.” Which brings us to Burton’s next point of ire.
“In both instances, Presidents Clinton and Obama failed to see the importance of the judiciary,” he says. “That’s why many federal judges are being appointed by the right wing—because neither paid attention to the importance of the judiciary. That’s ducking legacy; it’s ducking Trump’s legacy now.”
This is the Burton that people have come to know. A no-holds-barred legendary politico, whose expletive-infused vocabulary can rival that of any gangsta rapper. Much has been written about this side. But in a different office just a 10-minute walk away, there’s a staff that knows another man. Their Burton is the man whose passion for helping homeless and foster children has improved the lives of thousands of vulnerable youth. The guy they know is the man who’s responsible for the very existence of their life’s work at the John Burton Advocates for Youth.
“I’ve seen him use his talents and relationships to help the most vulnerable people in the state who get overlooked by a lot of interests. The needle has moved because of him,” says Amy Lemley, executive director of the nonprofit Burton founded in 2005. Lemley was running a housing program for former foster youth and, admittedly, did not have a lot of experience in policy advocacy when Burton offered her the job of policy director in 2006.
“I had hesitation, absolutely,” she says, “because I was going to be working for an expert—a maestro of politics and policy. I knew what the need was, but to work with John on policy was going from 0 to 100, and I had to humble myself and do my best and soak this up and learn as much as I could. To his credit, John was able to really appreciate and respect what I could contribute and never make me feel less than for what I did not know.”
Under Lemley’s leadership, and with Burton’s guidance, expansive network and knack for reaching across the aisle, the organization has led the state in the passage of legislation on foster care and homeless youth. “In the past, California’s foster youth aged out of the system at 18,” says Lemley. “There was no housing support. They were basically exiting to homelessness. That has all changed. The state was investing $1.3 million for the transitional housing program for foster care. Today, that investment is $35.8 million. Let’s take that in.”
It’s, no doubt, a lot to take in. Yet it barely scratches the surface of what Lemley, Burton and the organization’s lean staff of eight have been able to accomplish (see timeline). When asked why he started the foundation, Burton responds, “I was bored.” But on deeper reflection, he offers more. He tells the story of how, as a young boy, he and his father would walk down Market Street in front of Emporium, where a blind person was always there with an accordion and a cup. His father would take a nickel and dime from his pocket, hand one coin to him and tell him to drop it, saying “I never want to see you pass a blind person and not put something in their cup.”
“No one is poor because they want to be or homeless because they want to be,” he says. “The foundation was created to help the homeless, but then someone brought to my attention problems in the foster care system, which is something the government can do something about.”
He grows pensive when remembering his brother, former Rep. Phillip Burton, who passed away in 1983. He credits him for his own political career, as well as others’ careers, including former Mayors Willie Brown and George Moscone. He rattles off his brother’s list of accomplishments with pride. But when asked what he wants to be remembered for—what his legacy will be— he goes from surly to sentimental, and back: “That I wasn’t the asshole some people think I am. That I made a difference...” He trails off. “I don’t care. That’s for someone else to ducking decide.”
Such is the dichotomy of John Burton.
Photography by: PAMELA GENTILE, ILLUSTRATIONS BY BENJAMIN GIRDWOOD