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From the Outside Looking In


By Alexa Llewellyn



May 23, 2003

Legacies Make the (Political) World Go 'Round

In an article that ran in the SFCall about a year ago, Editor Betsey Culp pointed out the legacy of Philip Burton. (I always read my editor's articles -- it's a good career-enhancing move. Luckily, my editor is a great writer. [Ed’s note: Not-so-subtle flattery is also a “good career-enhancing move.”])

Phil Burton was a brilliant legislator, a clever strategist, and a consummate politician. He created an expanded national parks system, he improved and strengthened OSHA laws, and he helped created a stronger safety net for the working poor. But this master politico was a real master in creating a legacy of progressive political legacy that has only recently begin to wear down.

Burton's greatest talent was identifying talent and, more important, helping that talent into the spotlight. The people he took under his wing would be outstanding even without Phil Burton's influence. But his help made it possible for them to use their skills in a wider arena. The list is pretty impressive -- Willie Brown, Nancy Pelosi, Dolores Huerta, Art Agnos, George Moscone, and of course, Phil's brother John Burton. And it continues today, with people such as Gavin Newsom, Bevan Dufty, Fiona Ma, Emilio Cruz, Fred Hamdun, and others. Most of the younger generation never even met Phil Burton. But nevertheless his legacy continues, because he mentored one generation of bright politicians, creating the Burton/Brown machine, and in turn that group mentored the next.

Nonprofit groups, environmental groups, and consumer interest groups (Burton did a lot of work with Ralph Nader) can't pay their favorite legislators. And so Phil Burton died with $700 to his name. He died without stocks in major companies, seats on major corporate boards, and sweetheart deals with corporations. But for him, the ability to do the work for the greater good was the best type of pay that he could ask for.

Too bad, many of his mentorees didn't pick up on that lesson.

At the recent Progressive Campaign Training, I was struck by an emerging legacy. There were some outstanding presenters -- including Sarah Lipson, the new SF school board member (and treasurer for Matt Gonzalez's run for supervisor); Whitney Leigh, a well-respected attorney at a prestigious law firm (and former Stanford Law classmate of Matt Gonzalez), who taught the crowd the finer points of debate from his experience running for school board; Jim Dorenkott, a political activist (and aide de camp for Matt Gonzalez), who spoke eloquently about the need to keep the progressive movement going and of his idea for a forum on "the psychology of Green"; Barry Hermanson, a businessman and candidate for supervisor (and good friend and ally of Matt Gonzalez), who is heading up a minimum wage campaign that will probably lead to a November ballot initiative; and Tamara Ribas, a brilliant attorney with a great political mind (who was nominated to the Immigrants Rights Commission by Matt Gonzalez). Notice a common thread?

All are outstanding people in their own right. All of these bright, talented people have done well on their own merit, their own talent, and their own initiative. But they are attached to the common thread of supporting progressive politics, working for a greater good for the community, and they all have worked with Gonzalez.

There were others who spoke at the Progressive Campaign Training, such as the new Public Defender, Jeff Adachi, who spoke compellingly about keeping campaigns on the higher ground. David Binder was wonderful in reminding progressives to include the small business community in their initiatives -- and to start fundraising early. Caleb Kleppner of the Center for Voting and Democracy made clear the ways that absentee voters determine races. Susan King was outstanding, as usual, teaching important lessons on fundraising. Chris Daly added a great deal to the proceedings by describing how he created a true grassroots effort to win his last two elections. Robert Haaland did double duty, explaining field operations in clear, concise terms (as only a leading mentor in initiative campaigns can do) and offering a guide for progressives through the ins and outs of obtaining endorsements from political clubs.

Supervisor Matt Gonzalez also did a brilliant presentation. In his thoughtful and articulate manner, he pointed out ways of creating an advantage during a debate and/or forum, too. Working with Whit Leigh, Gonzalez described the details that someone on the campaign trail has to think about during a debate -- and what he or she shouldn't worry about. He talked about the importance of keeping your game face on even when your opponent hits you under the belt or says something that you disagree with. He pointed out the need to stay within your time limit to keeping the respect of the audience (and the organizers). He gave examples on how to answer a loaded question -- or reframe the question to create a more thoughtful (and crowd-pleasing) answer. His examples were questions that he threw back to Leigh in the practical terms of future elections, such as the supervisorial race for District 9.

But a movement doesn't depend on one person -- no matter how talented he or she might be. It needs the energy, dedication, and vision of an entire group of talented, principled people who believe in working for the improvement of lives in the city around them. At the training session, the crowd appreciated the wisdom, thoughtfulness, and experience of Matt Gonzalez, but they also saw the faces of the future of politics in San Francisco -- with Lipson, Leigh, Hermanson, Dorenkott, and Ribas. San Francisco does indeed seem to have a promising start for a new -- and maybe even better -- legacy.