Statue of Congressman Philip Burton overlooking the Golden Gate National Recreation Area he created.
Looking over reports of San Francisco State Senator Carole Migden's loss in the primary last week to Assemblyman Mark Leno, this phrase from the Sacramento Bee jumped out at me:
Yes -- that about catches it. Leno has overturned the established order of things -- the understanding in effect since term limits came into force in California -- that once installed in their comfortably gerrymandered seats, incumbents would get to serve out their limited time. But not Carole.
You see, Migden is a politician who had no friends. There were lots of people who feared her, who owed her, who had contributed funds to her, who admired her intellect and her ability to get things done -- but darn few who liked her. Her own problems -- campaign finance violations and reckless driving possibly with medical causes -- created an opening for Leno. And when push came to shove, a record of disdain for community activists and bullying of allies left her with few real defenders. And so Migden succumbed to an ideologically indistinguishable replacement who is "congenial."
This contemporary story makes a fascinating counterpoint to the book I'm reading this week: John Jacobs' Rage for Justice: the Passion and Politics of Phillip Burton. The looming memory of Phil Burton is beginning to pass away in San Francisco politics. The Congressman, who dominated San Francisco and sometimes the entire state's Democratic politics for thirty years, died in 1983. But his influence, through his brother, recently termed out State Senator John Burton, his successor in Congress Nancy Pelosi, and even in an attenuated way Carole Migden in her role in the 1990's as Democratic party boss, (see Randy Shaw here) has been with the city for a half century.
We shouldn't forget him. Jacobs makes clear that Phil Burton was a legislator without peer. He understood the intricacies of government, law and finance as hardly anyone ever does, worked incessantly, and used his knowledge to shape some of the most progressive legislation ever dredged out of Sacramento and Washington. We should still be thanking Phil for S.S.I. (often the sole support of disabled people), the existence of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, and vast expansions of national parks.
He was also, when he could be bothered, a superb campaign tactician. Jacobs' account of how Burton figured out in the 1950s that he could organize precinct level "get out the vote" operations targeting "big families," African Americans, and the as-yet-not-politically-mobilized San Francisco Chinese community is delightful to anyone interested in campaigns. He always based his appeal on representing underdogs and outsiders -- it is not surprising that late in his political life he was able to appeal to the emerging San Francisco gay community by championing AIDS research. He would have loved and mastered the opportunities for micro-targeting political messages made possible by contemporary voter databases.
Yet Burton had a problem: however much he fought for "the people," he had very little use for constituents. His ideal was a safe Democratic seat, properly gerrymandered so that re-election required no campaign. He was mightily offended in 1982 to have to campaign in a redrawn district in which perennial Republican San Francisco office holder Milton Marks might push him hard.
Burton won that campaign. But the stress of it probably did him in, along with too much booze, no exercise, and a life lived in a rage while seeking power in order to do justice.
Jacobs asserts, and it seems likely, that Phil Burton would have suffered miserably through the Reagan and Bush I years -- though he might have had the political smarts to put up a better fight against cutbacks to his programs than the Democrats of the 1980s mounted. He didn't care who liked him and he used his anger to fuel programmatic innovations.
But he also couldn't tolerate people who operated independently of him and he didn't make friends. And so, though he and other Democrats like him at the end of the long Democratic ascendancy that began with FDR and continued through LBJ could create good government programs, they didn't factor into their initiatives the need to create grassroots constituencies to support the programs government could offer. If liberal politicians could manipulate the levers of power forever, who needed annoying, unsophisticated idealistic advocates and constituents? And so, when Republicans stimulated a pseudo-populist grassroots backlash against racial equality and "big government," there weren't progressive constituency organizations to counter them. Too many liberal politicians found themselves out on their own limb by themselves, wondering what happened.
As we move toward again putting liberal politicians in power in Washington (and perhaps in 2010 in Sacramento), let's hope we can keep a noisy, intrusive chorus of popular organizations hollering to keep them honest -- to make them come home again, listen, and insist they need friends.