Former State Senator John Burton, the liberal legend who did more to help poor people than anyone else in Sacramento, has come out of retirement to run for Chairman of the California Democratic Party. This weekend, Democrats from across the state will pick delegates to the State Democratic Convention in April – where the new Party Chair will be chosen. It’s understandable why many new activists to the Party – inspired to get involved by the “people-powered” movements of Howard Dean and Barack Obama and willing to “crash the gate” of the old establishment – would be skeptical about putting a 76-year-old power broker at the helm of the state Democratic Party. But it’s precisely the same activist spirit and populist fire behind this energy that has defined much of Burton’s long political career. As the Party tries to reach new voters in future elections, Burton’s commitment to technology – as laid out in campaign goals released yesterday – defies the misconception that many activists have about him. And activists who fought for years to get more Party resources into the “redder” parts of California (applying Howard Dean’s Fifty State Strategy to the county level) will have a powerful ally in John Burton.
John Burton was one of the worst casualties of California’s term limits law, as he was forced out of the State Capitol in 2004. As California Journal
wrote at the time, “gone will be the Senate’s most vehement partisan for social services for the poor, the Senate’s angriest voice against tax breaks for businesses and the wealthy, its loudest voice for protection of workers, its fiercest pro-labor advocate.” Randy Shaw, writing for Beyond Chron
was even more succinct upon Burton’s retirement. “It’s a terrible loss for progressive interests,” he wrote. “There's no point making believe that he can be replaced.”
In the state legislature, Burton was one of those rare politicians who combined consistent progressive ideals that guided his agenda – with the political savvy to be a formidable power broker. It’s because of John Burton that low-income seniors enjoyed a modest tax break, tenants won substantial victories on Ellis Act reform, labor accomplished tangible results and environmentalists had a loyal champion. It’s difficult to assess all of Burton’s accomplishments because he rarely sought credit for them, and most progressives take them for granted. But any reasonable observation of Burton’s illustrious Senate career
carries the inescapable conclusion that he was a progressive giant with no equal.
Democratic Party activists who got involved through the insurgent campaigns of Howard Dean and Barack Obama may be skeptical about the Party replacing outgoing Chair Art Torres
(himself a former State Senator) with another ex-State Senator. Many of these delegates struggled with Torres, and are leery that another powerful politician would thwart reforms they want to see in the Party. The reality, however, is that Burton wasn’t just another State Senator. He is a staunch progressive with a record to prove it.
Netroots activists want the Party to effectively use technology to organize statewide, developing a grassroots infrastructure that creates true results. Some bloggers even mocked Burton
openly, suggesting that the 76-year-old is stuck in the 1960’s. Burton’s campaign goals, released yesterday, should allay such concerns. “I've been around long enough to know that those who only want to do things the same-old-way are doomed to failure,” he said. “We can’t be talking about just beginning to harness the power of e-mail when everyone else is talking about adding text messages to their arsenal. We can't be relegated to antiquated web technology and chasing yesterday's online fads. We must not only keep pace, but also innovate to provide the best possible tools for electoral and policy victory.”
California Democrats in the Central Valley and “red counties” have often felt left out by the State Party, as resources get diverted to more “winnable” parts of the state. In the last election, candidates in traditionally Republican districts came close to winning – despite being underfunded. Now these places need more resources from the Party – a “58-County Strategy” to target long-shot races, and to build a Democratic bench for future races. In his campaign goals, Burton speaks directly to these concerns:
“In 2008, Democratic voter registration in California increased dramatically,” he wrote. “We cannot waste this opportunity. Legislative districts once solidly Republican are now within our grasp. I will create a party program to maintain frequent contact with the new 2008 registrants to make sure they know we are right on the issues they care about. The Party must also invest resources in ongoing voter registration throughout the 58 counties so we can win the seats we fell just short in this time, and also challenge Republicans in other districts as well.”
On Saturday, registered Democrats throughout the state will gather at Assembly District caucuses to choose their delegates to the State Party Convention. At the Convention in Sacramento (held from April 24-26), these delegates will elect a new Chair to replace the retiring Art Torres. Progressives seeking to improve the Party’s reach, robustness and relevance would be well-served by electing John Burton as the New Democratic Chair.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Paul Hogarth has been an elected delegate to the California Democratic Convention for the past decade. He is a candidate for the 13th Assembly District caucus.