A San Francisco politics origin story: The Burton Machine

A change is afoot in The City, but perhaps nothing like 1963-64

In recent weeks, the appointment of David Chiu as city attorney has set off speculation about the downstream effect the move will have on San Francisco politics. The expectation is that Chiu’s replacement in the California State Assembly will set up more openings and electoral churn.

But, from an historical perspective, the churn will pale in comparison to what brothers Phillip and John Burton were able to do in a 9-12 month period more than half a century ago. In those months, San Francisco’s political leadership underwent a sea change, affecting The City’s Democratic Party culture for generations to come.

Phillip Burton has been dead for almost 40 years and John has not held a political office since stepping down as chair of California’s Democratic Party in 2017. Yet, like the 1906 earthquake, the Summer of Love or the tech revolution, their influence is still all around San Francisco.

Among the politicians still active today who got their start in elected office directly from the Burtons are Nancy Pelosi, San Francisco’s congresswoman and speaker of the House, and Willie Brown, the former speaker of the State Assembly, mayor of San Francisco and current eminence grise of local politics. Brown, in turn, gave Gov. Gavin Newsom his start in politics when he appointed him to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1997, and was an early supporter of Vice President Kamala Harris.

Many other local politicians can trace their political roots back to the Burtons and Brown, including Boxer, who served in the House of Representative before being elected to her first of four U.S. Senate terms in 1992, and State Treasurer Fiona Ma.

At one time, the Burtons even had an affiliated political operation in Southern California led by Congressmen Henry Waxman and Howard Berman.

“The Burton Machine,” as it came to be known, all began with a rapid series of events in 1963-1964.

In January 1963, Phil Burton was a San Francisco assemblyman who had first been elected in 1956, while his brother was practicing law. The Burtons had moved to San Francisco from the Midwest as youths and went to high school in The City. Phil graduated from Washington High School, John from Lincoln. Phil drank and smoked too much and was completely obsessed with politics — he had a political genius for campaign strategy, fundraising, identifying candidates, legislating and drawing district lines. John’s penchant for drinking and smoking veered into problems with substance abuse, but his political acumen was almost comparable to that of his brother. Today, John is in his late 80s, but, based on my conversation with him last year, his gruffness and profanity-ridden speech are still going strong.

In 1963, the mayor was a Republican named George Christopher. His term was winding down and he was not seeking reelection. Christopher was a liberal Republican, today most remembered for bringing the Giants to San Francisco. Additionally, Supervisor Jack Morrison, who had been elected in 1961, was the only Burton supporter in office.

It may be hard to imagine but in 1963 San Francisco’s mayorship had been held for 50 years by Republicans. San Francisco Democrats were anxious to get one of their own in City Hall. The initial frontrunner was Eugene McAteer, a powerful Democratic state senator, but he decided it wasn’t the right moment to run. Many San Francisco Democrats then turned to Jack Shelley, a popular Irish American congressman. Shelley was a great candidate on paper. He was Catholic, an experienced politician, had a solidly liberal — but not too liberal — record and could count on support from labor in what was still a very strong union town.

There was only one problem: Shelley wanted to remain in Congress and continue to accrue power and seniority there. In the end, he decided to run because another Irish American politician, President John F. Kennedy, with an eye on his reelection campaign in 1964, wanted a Democratic mayor in San Francisco to help him carry California.

So, when William Malone, a Irish American San Franciscan who had been chair of the State Democratic Party and was close with the president, made Kennedy’s views clear to Shelley, the congressman had to run for mayor. Without that call, and that pressure, Shelley may have stayed in Congress, Republican Harold Dobbs might have become mayor and the Burtons might never have had their breakthrough.

Kennedy was not the only one who wanted Shelley in City Hall. Phil Burton coveted Shelley’s seat in Congress and believed he would win it easily if Shelley vacated it. So, although Shelley and the Burtons were not allies, the Burtons understood the political key that Shelley’s move to mayor represented.

Shelley was not the Burtons only, or even most important, San Francisco candidate in 1963. There was also George Moscone. John Burton and Moscone had met in high school and become friends in law school — although Burton got his law degree at University of San Francisco and Moscone received his at Hastings. Moscone, at the Burtons’ suggestion, had run a decent but losing race for State Assembly in 1960, but the Burtons liked Moscone; he had deeper roots in The City than either Burton, was a handsome young lawyer and had been an all-city basketball player at St. Ignatius. It was not difficult for the Burtons to understand that Moscone could be a valuable partner for their shared political endeavors.

On Election Day, Shelley beat Dobbs by 12 points, while Moscone won the sixth, out of six, at-large seats on the Board of Supervisors.

The Burtons now had a Democratic mayor who they did not like, but who they had helped elect, as well as a second Board of Supervisors as member part of their team.

From there, the dominoes fell. In early 1964, Phil Burton easily won the special election to replace Shelley in the House of Representatives. A few months after that, John Burton won the Democratic primary to replace his brother in the State Assembly, while on the same day in June 1964, Willie Brown, then an attorney and civil rights activist, won his first Assembly primary. Brown had been close with John Burton since their time as San Francisco State students in the early 1950s. Brown had a similar relationship with Moscone, which began a few years later when they were in law school at Hastings together. Naturally, Moscone and Phil Burton were both important backers of Brown and John Burton in their Assembly bids.

That domino-like, 12-month period changed San Francisco forever.

Within a few years, Moscone was the majority leader of the State Senate and a few years after that mayor of San Francisco. As most San Franciscans know, Moscone was assassinated in 1978. Phil Burton remained in the House of Representatives for the rest of his life, coming within one vote of becoming speaker of the House in 1976. After Phil Burton died in 1983, his widow Sala Burton held his seat for a few years; in 1987 when she was dying, Sala Burton endorsed Pelosi to succeed her. Brown and John Burton remained hugely influential for decades following their election to the Assembly in 1964.

The chain of events that Chiu’s appointment will set off are unlikely to be close to this significant, but with the right planning and a few breaks, anything can happen. Of course, we will have to wait another 50 years to know for sure.

Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles about The City. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.

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