Senate's Burton Going Out on Top

*Even as retirement nears, the longtime legislator is still the king of fund-raisers with $1.2 million collected this year.

By Carl Ingram, Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO â€" Senate leader John L. Burton's long career in the Legislature is winding down, but his skills as a premier fund-raiser show no sign of letting up. They may even be getting better.

In campaign finance documents filed with the secretary of state this week, the veteran Democrat from San Francisco reported raising more than $1.2 million during the first six months of the year, a remarkably large sum given that many of the state's biggest political givers were all but tapped out after last year's expensive primary and general elections.

Nearly all of Burton's contributions came in blocks that would have been prohibited under the limits of Proposition 34, approved by voters in 2002, except for a loophole created by the Fair Political Practices Commission. That exception enabled Burton and a handful of other long-time lawmakers to legally exceed the limits, provided the money was then forwarded to political party organizations.

In all, the reports showed that Burton's fund-raising operation, which also distributes limited sums to individual Democratic candidates, ended the Jan. 1-June 30 period with $2.1 million in the bank, far surpassing the $1.2 million cash-on-hand reported by his closest competitor, state Sen. Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga, the Senate Republican floor leader.

Reports filed by Brulte, Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) and Assembly GOP leader Dave Cox of Fair Oaks suggested that their fund-raising was far less aggressive than Burton's.

Wesson, who like Burton will retire from the Legislature next year, reported raising $44,066 during the six-month period. Cox said he raised $165,000.

Burton, who was first elected to the Assembly in 1964, served eight years in Congress, returned to the Assembly and was elected to the Senate in 1996. He is a premier fund-raiser, a quality that motivated fellow Democrats in the Senate to elect him leader of the Senate in 1998 as president pro tem.

Burton, a former member of the bartenders union, is considered to be organized labor's best ally in the Legislature, especially among public employee unions. And they were among his most generous contributors, with checks ranging from $5,000 to $50,000.

Other major contributors included Indian tribes with gambling casinos, television executive Jerry Perenchio, homebuilder Eli Broad, commercial real estate magnate Walter Shorenstein, DVD tycoon Reed Hastings and developer Angelo Tsakopoulos, whose company gave Burton $50,000.

In 2002, California voters approved Proposition 34, which Burton sponsored. It placed contribution limits on statewide and legislative election campaigns, restricting individual donations for legislative candidates to $3,000 per election. Supporters said it was aimed at minimizing the appearance of political corruption "caused by large contributions."

But two years later, Burton and Wesson became the unwitting beneficiaries of a controversial ruling by the Fair Political Practices Commission. The watchdog panel held that the limits did not apply to political committees that were in existence before Proposition 34, meaning committees that had been established and controlled by veteran legislators for many years.

The decision drew fire from critics who charged that the action went directly against the notion of limiting contributions and instead enabled incumbents to continue collecting unrestricted sums while their challengers would be limited to individual donations of $3,000.

The commission said, however, that such funds could not be spent directly on other candidates, but could be passed on as "soft money" to the political parties, which, in turn, would dole the funds directly to selected campaigns.

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