Calif. Dem. chair John Burton’s past includes sexual harassment, bookmaking, cursing ‘more than a West Coast rapper’

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John Burton, the California Democratic Party chairman who made news Monday in Charlotte, N.C., by comparing Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan to the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, has a history of making vulgar and sexually charged comments both in public and private.

Burton apologized Monday for telling the San Francisco Chronicle on Saturday that Ryan and GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney “lie and they don’t care if people think they lie… Joseph Goebbels — it’s the big lie, you keep repeating it.” He had added that Ryan told “a bold-faced lie and he doesn’t care that it was a lie. That was Goebbels, the big lie.”

Burton also made the same comparison during an interview Monday with KCBS Radio.

The colorful 79-year-old Californian, a former member of Congress whom the Daily Show’s John Oliver once accused of cursing “more than a West Coast rapper,” returned home abruptly to the Golden State after making those controversial remarks, ostensibly to have a root canal.

In 2008, Burton settled a $10 million sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Kathleen Driscoll, then the executive director of his charitable foundation for homeless children. Driscoll claimed Burton repeatedly swore at her and directed lewd and suggestive comments at her, on nearly a daily basis. She also claimed he routinely made lewd comments about her underwear and body parts.

According to Driscoll’s lawsuit, Burton suggested she was “probably wild sexually like all Catholic girls,” and introduced her to business associates as a “thong model.” He also allegedly made “hand gestures mimicking masturbation” while in her presence on approximately ten different occasions.

Burton served in Congress from 1975 until 1982, resigning after seeking treatment for drug addiction. After a stint in rehab, he served in the California Assembly from 1988 to 1996 and then in the State Senate until 2006. In April of that year, California Democrats made him their party’s chairman.

According to the 1996 book “Willie Brown: A Biography,” Burton was collared for bookmaking in 1962 while he was a 29-year-old deputy state attorney general. The arrest, author James Richardson wrote, came “in a downtown parking lot when he was caught phoning in a bet on a horse named Legal Beagle.”

In his 1997 book about John Burton’s late brother, “A Rage for Justice: The Passion and Politics of Phillip Burton,” author John Jacobs filled in some of the details.

Burton “had been collecting and paying off bets there for several months, the parking lot attendant told police, who put the lot under surveillance after getting tipped off,” Jacobs wrote.

“It’s all a ghastly mistake. I don’t know what this is all about,’ John told police. … John Burton was released on $1,050 bail and acquitted when the judge agreed with the Burton defense: the race had been run before Burton placed the call. [Future San Francisco Mayor George] Moscone, his lawyer, reportedly told the arresting officer, “I’m not getting paid for this. The party’s making me do it.”

Burton has stayed in the spotlight for decades, for what many observers consider the wrong reasons. The Washington Post reported in 1996 that while a state assemblyman, Burton criticized anti-affirmative-action activist Ward Connerly’s appointment to the California State University System’s Board of Regents.

Defending the institution of affirmative action, Burton said that “[p]robably the most evil consequence is the fact that Ward Connerly got on the Board of Regents not on his ability but because he put a little pepper in the salt.”

And in defense of a group of left-wing protesters who paid nearly $80,000 to attend an April 2011 Barack Obama fundraiser — just so they could protest against it from the inside — Burton made them an unconventional offer.

If “[t]hey pay $78 grand, they can come back and insult me,” Burton told reporters, according to The Sacramento Bee.

“They can take a dump in my salad for $78 grand.”

In September 2001 The San Francisco Chronicle chronicled the end of the state legislative session by recounting Burton’s effort to kill a bailout for California Edison proposed by then-Gov. Gray Davis. The bailout, Burton said, was “a pile of s—.”

Facing Gov. Davis’ threat of a special session to reconsider the measure, Burton said he would gladly call for a vote just to watch the plan fail. “I mean, insulting us?” Burton said. “He just [expletive] himself.”

Asked by the Associated Press in 2000 whether a $100-per-ticket fundraising event he co-hosted — where lobbyists mingled with state lawmakers in the waning days of the legislative session — posed a conflict of interest, Burton was his usual salty self.

“Only an [expletive] would think this is a conflict,” Burton told a reporter. “This is like a [expletive] party. This is a $100 event.”

The AP and the Chronicle censored Burton’s foul language. But CalBuzz, a statewide political website, let his May 2010 words speak for themselves in one of the most unconventional corrections of all time.

CalBuzz had asked Burton about a Democratic Party ad attacking then-gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman.

“Through his spokesman,” the website’s editors wrote, “Burton on Monday complained that he had been misquoted. Burton says he didn’t say ‘Fuck you.’ His actual words were, ‘Go fuck yourself.’ Calbuzz regrets the error.”

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Charles C. Johnson