Capitol Alert

Chairman John Burton on Democratic conventions, present and past

Then-U.S. Rep. John Burton gestures during a news conference in San Francisco where he formally announced he would not seek reelection.
Then-U.S. Rep. John Burton gestures during a news conference in San Francisco where he formally announced he would not seek reelection.

John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party, didn’t travel this week to the Democratic National Convention, instead opting to watch history play out from the comfort of his home.

Burton, an 83-year-old former congressman and legislative leader, said the lack of intrigue over Hillary Clinton’s formal march to the nomination made his presence unnecessary.

After offering his seat to a Dreamer, Burton didn’t expect to watch much of the convention. But he took in most of it, and enjoyed what he saw.

Tension coming in was evident as supporters of Bernie Sanders held out late hopes that their champion could still win. On the opening night, Burton said he noticed spirits were lifted after Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota spoke and Paul Simon performed “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” First lady Michelle Obama gave a boffo speech, he said.

A liberal firebrand, Burton said Clinton on Thursday effectively addressed the angst and unfairness of punishing student loan debt and the stubborn inequality gap between the rich and poor. “I thought it was excellent,” he said of the glass-ceiling shattering address.

“I think she’ll get a bump” in polls, Burton added, particularly considering that Donald Trump did so well after his unorthodox convention in Cleveland.

California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton, appearing at a state party convention this year, says Donald Trump is a "phenomenon."

Burton has plenty of memories of some of the conventions he did attend, including a couple where the outcome was less certain:

Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, 1960

Burton was 28 years old. A friend’s brother was head of the union that ran the event center, so Burton and his friends were allowed to go in and walk around the floor.

They had demonstrations then, and states nominated a “favorite son” that had little chance of winning but could share their ideas. Some of the Democratic players were Iowa Gov. Herschel Loveless, Kansas Gov. George Docking and U.S. Sen. George Smathers of Florida. Burton was in the demonstration for former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson, who had about 25 delegates there.

“The rest were just guys like us,” Burton said, chuckling. “They would let anybody join in to the demonstration.”

Paul Butler, then the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was looking on, and Burton marched by him, screaming out, “Listen to the voices of the people!”

International Amphitheatre, Chicago, 1968

Democrats throughout the primary were divided between Sens. Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, until Kennedy was shot that June in Los Angeles. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, focusing on caucus states, ultimately won the nomination at the tumultuous convention.

Burton was involved a “little bit,” as a delegate supporting McCarthy. Then-Rep. Phil Burton, John’s late brother, was a lead speaker in favor of the peace plank.

“It was ‘Get out of Vietnam,’” said John Burton, by then a member of the state Assembly.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley had stacked the halls with sewer workers, and it got raucous. He and U.S. Sen. Abe Ribicoff of Connecticut got into their famous shouting match, with Ribicoff denouncing the city’s “Gestapo'” tactics and Daly screaming back epithets.

Said Burton: “They had riots. There were gun shots. It scared the s--- out of us.”

Miami Beach Convention Center, 1972

Burton, a congressman at the time, co-chaired the California delegation with Willie Brown and Dolores Huerta. Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, a friend of Burton’s, got the nomination, but the campaign and party “didn’t know what the hell to do with it.”

“By the time McGovern accepted the nomination it was, like, ... three in the morning, or something, instead of waiting and letting him come down for a prime time speech,” Burton said.

Brown at the convention gave his famous speech insisting that the full California delegation be seated for McGovern. “Give me back my delegation!” he said in closing.

When McGovern died four years ago, Burton remembered the opponent of the Vietnam War as a “warrior for peace, an unmatched intellect and a great American.”

Madison Square Garden, New York, 1976

For Burton, who was on the national committee, the convention was interesting but less than exciting. Jimmy Carter came into the event with more than enough delegates to clinch the nomination.

Madison Square Garden, New York, 1980

President Carter went in with enough committed delegates to be renominated. But then-Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts unsuccessfully pushed to allow delegates to vote however they wanted to on the first ballot.

“That was kind of exciting,” said Burton, a Kennedy supporter.

He said the outcome demonstrated “the power of the presidency.”

“Carter was not popular. But he was the president,” Burton said. “And Kennedy was the usurper. And you could see it.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago