Term Limits Mean Pink Slip for California's Burton

 

California Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, one of the Golden State's most powerful lawmakers in his 40-year career and reportedly the inspiration for the movie character "Bulworth," is turning off the lights in his statehouse office. Term limits make him ineligible to seek re-election this year.

"I always thought term limits were stupid. People can vote you out whenever they want," said Burton, 71, a member of a renowned San Francisco political family who led the California Senate for seven years in a position considered to be the state's second most powerful.

Term limits will bench 261 lawmakers in 12 states this year, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Hardest hit is the Arkansas House, losing 36 percent of its membership. Other chambers losing considerable experience include the Michigan House (losing 34 percent), Missouri Senate (losing 29 percent), and the Oklahoma House (losing 28 percent) and Senate (losing 29 percent).

California, where terms limits were adopted in 1990 by citizen initiative, is among 15 states where lawmakers are retired by law after serving six, eight or 12 years. Other states with term limits are Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Colorado, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota. Twenty-one states adopted term limits but six of those -- Idaho, Massachusetts, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming -- have seen the restrictions repealed or thrown out by courts.

Term limits are inspiring musical chairs in Arizona this year. Six termed-out lawmakers are trying to avoid automatic retirement by running for seats in the other chamber, The Arizona Republic reported.

Term limits are stopping at least 26 veteran leaders and 114 chairs of standing committees from seeking re-election this year, NCSL's reseach showed. They include Colorado House Speaker Lola Spradley (R), Maine Senate President Beverly Daggett (D) and Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder (R), who, according to The Columbus Dispatch, is under federal investigation.

But none of the term-limited lawmakers is more powerful than Burton, the real muscle in the California Senate, where the lieutenant governor is president but rarely presides and only votes to break ties. In 24 years, California has seen only three presidents pro tem: David Roberti, Bill Lockyer and Burton.

Burton served 14 years in the Assembly, eight years in the U.S. Congress, two years as leader of the California Democratic Party and a decade in the state Senate. Actor Warren Beatty reportedly styled his disillusioned "Bulworth" character on Burton in the 1998 movie about a liberal, rapping politician who says whatever he wants even if it offends.

Upon leaving public office when the Senate officially adjourns Nov. 30, Burton said he plans to help create a foundation for homeless children. The California Senate voted to name its largest hearing room after him, recognizing a career that included numerous legislative achievements:

  • an employer-financed expansion of healthcare for 1.1 million workers that is the subject of a November ballot measure, Proposition 72. restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles;
  • creation of a wilderness area within Point Reyes National Seashore;
  • an AIDS license plate that generates funds for fighting the disease;
  • the first educational program for autistic children.

As president pro tem, the savvy, salty and mustachioed Burton (click here to see his photo) was known for making friends with his political opponents, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). California Journal, a non-partisan magazine about state government and politics, said in a story about Burton: "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 and its disciplinarian."

As a lawmaker, Burton once introduced a bill to make poverty a crime, ridiculing Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's stance on welfare reform. As he prepared to turn over the reins this month to newly elected Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, Burton said his proudest achievement was providing increased benefits to the poor.

"Those are the people who need the help of the government," Burton said. "According to what I've been told, they're getting $150 a month more than when I took over the pro tem's job. To me, that's pretty good."

Burton told Schwarzenegger earlier this year that assuring benefits to the poor was the San Francisco senator's top budget priority.

"He just says, Tell me what's important to you,'" Burton said of Schwarzenegger. "And so I told him. I think he knew anyway, but I told him. And basically he knew that's what he needed for me to have, for me to help get a budget through. For whatever reason, I find him easier to deal with than (Democratic Gov. Gray) Davis."

Burton, the son of a doctor who cared for poor people without charging them, was first elected to the Assembly in 1964. He served four terms in the U.S. Congress, but didn't run for re-election in 1982. Later, he sought treatment for alcohol and cocaine dependency and was out of office for six years.

"If you look at the totality of his career, probably his biggest accomplishment was recovering after crashing in Congress. He faced problems that would have destroyed other people," said Jack Pitney, political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College. "It's not only a personal accomplishment but a great example for other people with problems."

He returned to the California Assembly in 1988 and in 1996 won a Senate seat. He crowned a comeback by being unanimously elected president of the state Senate two years later. At his swearing in, he quoted Jerome Kern's song that urges, "Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again."

The business community found Burton unapproachable and sometimes became the victim of his "time bombs" inserted in legislation, said Ron Roach, spokesman for the California Taxpayers Association. For example, Burton included "poison pills" that would require benefits to the poor to be linked to a car tax reduction, Roach said. But Burton still won respect for his legislative abilities and "for being an advocate of the down and out," Roach said.

Burton formed alliances even with ideological opponents, such as Harriet Salarno, a conservative crime victims' advocate, who said, "At least I always knew where he stood."

As a California legislator, Burton said the most fun he ever had was overriding Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan's veto of a bill that kept mental hospitals open. He was the only state lawmaker to successfully lead an override of a Reagan veto.

Burton, known for tirades and unprintables, said his replacement, Perata, "probably won't lose his temper as much. That's one of the things given to me by my staff, a plaque: I yell because I care.' I just do. It's not something that's really nice, but I do."

As a kid, Burton figured he would be a basketball player, not a lawmaker. Then his brother, Democratic U.S. Rep. Phillip Burton, one of the most influential power brokers the House has ever known, paved John Burton's way into politics. Phillip Burton died suddenly in San Francisco in 1983 at age 57, while he was still in office.

"He was better. He was probably one of the best that ever was. It would be like if you were Michael Jordan's brother, and you're a pretty good basketball player but you'll never be Michael Jordan. But it never bothered me being his younger brother, except when we were kids and somebody would be mad at him and beat me up," Burton said. 

 
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