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The GOP Versus Phil Burton’s Ghost

2012 may be the best chance in years for the Reeps to capture the reliably Democratic 6th District House seat. And is there a runoff scenario that actually favors the Reeps?

It's not much of a secret about the reasons for the paucity of Bay Area Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives. Part of it is the progressive cant of the population. But another enormously important reason for the liberal nature of Bay Area politics was the redistricting genius of San Francisco’s bull-boss Democratic leader Philip Burton. Burton, who died in 1983, was a genius at taking a political map and slicing and dicing Congressional districts in a way that made it impossible for even the most progressive Republican to succeed.

Burton’s greatest feat of “Phil-mandering,” (in deference to master political manipulator Elbridge Gerry, the fifth Vice President, for whom “Gerrymandering" is named) was the creation of the California 6th district, which has wandered during every tenth, redistricting, year, all over the North Bay and even into San Francisco, picking up Democratic neighborhoods here and there which has made it one of the nation's most liberal political geographies.

Burton truly put his gigantic heart into the redistricting of the 6th district. He did it to assure that his beloved younger brother, John Burton, who was narrowly elected to Congress in a 1975 special election, would have as permanent a seat in Congress as possible. On the seventh day, Phil Burton may have rested, but he still found time to slice off his own virtually impregnable 5th Congressional District.

John Burton was not destined to keep his “rotten borough." He was forced to resign in 1982 admitting to cocaine and alcohol abuse and entered rehab. Burton's successor was Marin County Supervisor Barbara Boxer, who represented the 6th for five terms before she went on to win the 1992 U.S Senate race.

In the Bay Area political way of things, the 6th has been occupied ever since by Lynn Woolsey, under whom the district has remained inviolably Democratic. In 2008, Barack Obama received an astonishing 76 percent of votes in the 6th to John McCain's 22 percent.

Phil Burton died in 1983, but the California 6th that he invented has remained a graveyard for Republicans. 

But believe it or not, today, the 6th is about as much in play as it has been since the 1974 election that sent Johnny Burton to Congress and Republicans are still so wary of the ghost of Phil Burton that there are four announced Democrats running for the retiring Woolsey’s seat, without the official announcement of a single Republican.  

Things are stirring, however.

“Do the math,” urges Daniel Roberts, the 65-year-old, Belvedere-based, San Francisco-born, Lowell-prepped, stock analyst and broker. Roberts, a Republican, has hired a campaign treasurer and taken care of other requirements necessary for a Congressional run.

“With four or five Democrats and one Republican running…” he says, calculating a possible electoral scenario that could favor a lone Republican running against a pack of Dems. Roberts runs through the makeup of the district, with 21 percent Republicans and a similar number of independents and "declines to state", which initially makes a Republican electoral victory seem remote.

With new rules that mandate a runoff between the two top vote getters, however, it is not out of the question that a Republican like Roberts could sneak into the runoff. “Sixty-seven percent split four ways, we’re there one of two,” Roberts observed.

Although he doesn’t care much to talk about it, Roberts is a vet who was wounded in a firefight in Vietnam in 1967 and received the Purple Heart. He is a member of the California Disabled Veterans Business Enterprise Alliance and ran as a write-in American Independence Party candidate for Congress in 2008, receiving a paltry 200 votes. Roberts at least felt that he gained an understanding that in the Bay Area being affiliated with a major political party is a necessary evil and holding some progressive ideals an electoral necessity.

This time around, Roberts believes that he may get a boost with the new redistricted shape of the 6th District, for which the maps are currently being released. In any case it is almost certain that the new 6th District will extend from Marin hugging the Coast north up to the Oregon border. It is a region, he notes, that has historically been among the most conservative in the state.

“A centrist conservative will play up north,” says Roberts, who grew up in a union-friendly household with his father a serious Teamster. "The conservative base here in Marin and Sonoma will also help," he adds.

With businessman Jim Judd in mind, Roberts says he “has to make sure that there are no other Republicans running.” Judd is the Tea Party conservative swamped by Woolsey in 2010.

“I knew it was a long shot,” Judd says of his run, admitting that the 2012 race “has been weighing on my mind for a long time.” One reason why Judd hasn't announced is that while the redistricting could shift the electoral outlook slightly to the right, it could also mean that “it could cost a lot more” for ads and media that reach the District’s northern counties.”

Judd, who identifies himself as "more of an independent," questions whether his own brand of fiscal conservatism will play in an era of extreme ideology. "The Republicans would be livid," he admits, "that I believe we need to raise taxes, and the Democrats would be livid that I believe we need to cut the budget.”

Judd promises that he will make up his mind in the next 30 days after the electoral maps are released. He is also keenly aware that Robert has “the gobs of money” North Bay media consultant Brian Sobel thinks it will take to make any Republican viable in 2012.

The money part doesn’t seem to trouble Roberts in the least. Laughingly referring to himself “as an equal opportunity offender,” Roberts is quick to note that he is “going to be proudly self-financing.” He sees, he says, “no monetary limit for the right ideas,” pledging to spend $400,000 for the first leg of the race and another $400,000 for the runoff.”

“I also know quite a lot of people with money,” Roberts warns. For Roberts, the ability to speak on the issues of the day trumps all. Unlike opponents he considers to be parochial, “I want to talk about amnesty, about debt, war and peace, and taxes and spending.”     

Roberts says he'll be happy “to put my life on hold” to run for Congress.

“My prediction is a runoff between Norm Solomon and I,” he says.

Winning that runoff, however, could be the rub. The question will be, even in the most disaffected of times, can the GOP overcome the ghost of Phil Burton, and win in a district that hasn’t gone Republican since Jerry Ford was President?

But wait. It gets even richer than that. Re-checking the notion of a runoff between the two leading candidates raises some sinister, perhaps unintended, possibilities. It goes like this: If well-organized Republicans are able to correctly apportion their own votes and financing of two parallel Republican campaigns, it might be possible for them to win the top two positions over four scrapping Dems who will dilute the vote enough so that it will only take, say, 25 percent of the vote to swing things towards the two Republicans. 

It would be a once-in-a-lifetime coup, but probably one that would require Republicans to moderate their positions on a lot of issues, something neither Jim Judd nor Dan Roberts would likely do. Still, could it be that the Democrats in the 6th are going to wage some great, exciting, progressive campaigns that have the effect of losing them the most liberal district in America? Stay tuned.

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