John Burton, the California Democratic Party chairman and former president pro tempore of the state Senate, started the John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes in 2004. He tells us words to live by, about his family, and the best and worst things about leaving elected office.
What would you want most to hear your colleagues say about you? When I got elected to the Senate … they were very laudatory about me because I kept my word. I was also accused of having a burning passion and not taking no for an answer.
Who has had the biggest impression on you? Probably my father, my brother Phil and my mother. Well, my father gave me a social conscious; from my mother, her Catholic whatever. … Phil was the smartest legislator in the history of the country.
Where do you find inspiration? It comes from within, I guess. If I see an injustice or see something that’s wrong, I try to do something.
What piece of writing has had the biggest impact on you? There are two quotes. One was by John Quincy Adams. It said: “Always vote for principle, even if you vote alone you will be respected; your vote will never be lost.” You will reflect … you will know that your vote was right. The other is James Russell Lowell’s “A Stanza on Freedom”: “They are slaves who fear to speak for the fallen or the meek.”
What is the golden rule by which you live? Say what you mean; mean what you say. And as Shakespeare said: “To thine own self be true.” In politics, go with your gut.
What is something about you that people would find surprising? Beneath it all I’m a real softy. I cry at lousy movies.
What’s the mission of the John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes? To try to improve the quality of [life for] homeless and foster children.
What’s one of the biggest issues or obstacles facing homeless children? It’s job opportunities and decent housing for their families. There are few people with children who wake up one day and say, “I think I’ll be homeless and have my children be homeless.” A lot of people are one step away from being homeless. They are one paycheck away from being homeless.
What is the best part about leaving elected office? You have less of other people’s demands. When you’re out of office, people may have a piece of you, but [you] only give that of you that you want to.
What is the worst part? The worst part is you don’t have the ability to fix things you want to fix. You’re on the outside. You’re not totally helpless, but you’re a supplicant like everyone else.