Meyerson: Sala's Choice; Nancy Pelosi Carries On a Powerful Legacy

January 3, 2007
By Harold Meyerson

Sala Galant Lipschultz Burton made two critical decisions during her lifetime, the full meaning of which could not have been apparent to her at the time she made them. The first, in the early 1950s, was to marry a young lawyer and Democratic activist named Phil Burton, who was to become the single most important member of the House of Representatives in the '60s and '70s.

As a leader of the California Young Democrats and a rising force in San Francisco politics, the young Phil Burton had already won a reputation for his political brilliance -- and for his explosive temper. Nobody worked harder for liberal causes. Nobody demanded more of his associates and staffers: If they didn't match his crazy hours, his ability to count votes or his understanding of the art of the deal, they'd be subjected to eruptions from the Burton volcano.

Throughout his career, in fact, the biggest obstacle to Burton's success was his rage. That he accomplished as much as he did was due in part to Sala. The late John Jacobs, whose 1995 biography of Burton, 'A Rage for Justice,' is one of the great political biographies of the past quarter-century, reported that Sala was Phil's confidante, co-strategist and champion, but that was only the beginning. 'She cleaned up his messes,' Jacobs wrote, 'soothing and placating those he insulted or abused. She alone could intervene in a conversation to shut him up.'

Phil Burton was first elected to the House in 1964. In his 19 years as a congressman -- he died of a ruptured aorta in 1983 -- he was responsible for the legislation that established Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for the aged, blind and disabled; created black-lung compensation for coal miners; increased the minimum wage; made strikers eligible for food stamps; greatly expanded the size and number of national parks; and abolished the House Un-American Activities Committee. More broadly, he broke the power of the old Dixiecrat barons in the House by subjecting committee chairmanships to secret ballot elections within the Democratic caucus. He engineered reapportionments of California that were greatly to his party's benefit, and he steered contributions to the Democratic candidates who needed them most.

When he died, Sala succeeded him in a special election. Just four years later, in January 1987, Sala herself lay dying of cancer. She asked Phil's brother, John Burton, who had represented an adjoining congressional district in San Francisco, to come to the hospital and told him that she wanted 'Nancy' to succeed her. For a moment, John Burton was unsure which Nancy she was referring to, but as she explained to family and friends at her bedside, the woman in question was the former California Democratic Party chair Nancy Pelosi.

Pelosi had been associated with the Burtons since shortly after she and her husband had moved to San Francisco in the years when Phil's star was rising. The Pelosis had a large, attractive house, and the first thing she recalls Phil saying to her was, 'We'll use this for fundraisers.' But Phil's appreciation of Pelosi wasn't confined to her abilities as a hostess. He saw in her a commitment to progressive values and a clear political sense of how to turn those values into laws. When John stepped down from Congress in 1982, Phil asked Pelosi to stand for election to replace him, but she declined, saying her children were too young. Five years later, Sala, on her deathbed, evidently saw in Pelosi the same qualities that Phil had seen.

This time, her children older, Pelosi said yes, and in April she won a squeaker of a special election.

In the House, Pelosi has continually sought the counsel of another Burton protege, George Miller, whose district is right across the Bay from hers. Appointed early on to a seat on the Appropriations Committee, she demonstrated, says the committee's new chairman, Wisconsin's David Obey, that she was 'operational' -- a Burton word meaning able to steer difficult measures to enactment.

When the Newt Gingrich Republicans swept to power in 1994, political almanac authors Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa termed it 'the collapse of the House that Phil Burton built.' Nancy Pelosi, as smooth as Phil Burton was rough, is far more open to openness in the legislative process than her sometimes secretive mentor was. Politically, she understands the limits of the possible and that she can expand them only as far as the American people are willing to go. But she also knows that the American people want Congress to do any number of things that were stubbornly, and, in the end, suicidally resisted by the now-collapsed house that Newt Gingrich built.

The Burtonistas -- with different causes and methods for a new era, to be sure -- are back. Score two for you, Sala.