SACRAMENTO -- John Burton, the state Democratic Party chairman famous for reeling off streams of expletives, is fresh off a string of victories that essentially codified California as a blue state -- while the rest of the nation was being swept up in a Republican tide.
But he remains an epithet machine, and is as ticked off as ever at the state of things. Fear of his party losing its edge is probably what motivates him, and why Democrats are urging him to run for re-election, even though he's only halfway through his four-year term.
As Democrats kick off their state party convention Friday, Burton spoke to Bay Area News Group on a range of issues, including his view that Republicans won't vote for taxes because they are "scared of their own shadow." Unafraid to use metaphors that others would find offensive, Burton mused that the only way for Gov. Jerry Brown to persuade Republicans to go along with taxes might be to "try shooting" one.
But he also had some criticism of President Barack Obama, who he said should have played hardball with Republicans on continuing the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy.
Democrats won all statewide contests, successfully defended U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer's seat and added a seat to the state Assembly last fall. Yet, even with a Democratic governor, control of both legislative houses, and new powers to approve budgets on majority votes, they have been unable to push through a budget agreement to close the remaining $15.4 billion state deficit -- thanks to the constitutional requirement for a two-thirds vote on taxes.
Here are Burton's reflections on a variety of topics during an interview this week:
Q What message were voters sending to President Obama in handing him such a torrent of midterm defeats in 2010?
A People vented their anger at the president in 2010 and now they see what Republicans are doing and they wish they didn't. Now they have all these right-wing nuts and they don't know who they'll end up nominating and whether the real screwballs will take over the convention and the national party.
If the election was today, the president would win. The economy appears to be getting better, and Republicans are just totally out of control. When Donald Trump is the second guy (in GOP primary polls, behind Mitt Romney) because people know who he is, that tells you there's a problem.
Q Should Obama make the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy the big debate for 2012?
A I'm one who thought it should have been a big debate when tax cuts were continued (earlier this year). The president could have said he just wanted to stick it to the rich. He could have drawn the line at $5 million, which everybody would have understood. What the hell? Why does anybody making more than that need help? And Republicans would have been proven for what they are. But unfortunately, the bill just kind of went through, and people weren't sure whether Democrats were opposed to it or not.
I've always thought that Democrats cede the economic issues to Republicans. If Democrats go after the very rich, the Republicans say it's class warfare, and we tend to back off. And when Republicans beat up on the poor people and working people, it's nothing. That's real class warfare.
Q Are you surprised the public strongly supports an overhaul of the state's pension system?
A Well, really? Some guy in Bell was getting a half-million in pensions, and no (expletive), almost everybody, including public employees agree with (reforming) that.
The problem is that you got some city manager or chief of police or fire chief who did 30 years and they get a pension plus a separate check for either comp time or unused vacation and everybody thinks they're all getting that. But there's the public employees -- school teachers can't get Social Security and they end up retiring on maybe $25,000 a year. Clerical help, janitors, people making $40,000 or $45,000 a year and their pensions aren't much.
If you're fixing it, fix it in a way where those people who are making big money, they pay more money into it and those making less pay less into it.
Q What's at the heart of the stalemate in the Capitol?
A I think Republicans are scared to death that if they do anything constructive someone will beat them in a primary. But if you get beat giving the people the right to choose what kind of state government they want, you're in the wrong business. If you're afraid of your own shadow when you vote, go find a job as a house painter -- a union house painter so you get benefits. It ain't that big a deal that every time something happens you want to go throw up.
Q How would you rate Gov. Jerry Brown's job so far?
A He's got an impossible job. He can try shooting somebody and tell the next guy, 'You don't want that to happen to you, you better step up and vote.' "... What's Jerry going to do unless he took out a gun?
He's doing as good as he could with an impossible job. He and the Democrats have showed better than good faith cutting every program they believed in, and they got nothing back. Over the last three years, Democrats have gone overboard by half to prove they're willing to cast tough votes and Republicans don't do (a thing).
Q Should Democrats push to eliminate the two-thirds requirement on taxes?
A No. But what you could do is reduce the local vote for taxes from two-thirds to 50 or 55 percent. You could do that. People have more faith in local government because they can go directly to their local councilman (and complain).
Q Is there a motivating factor, a mobilizing issue for Democrats as they head into 2012?
A The more Republicans do, the angrier Democrats get.
Position: Chairman, California Democratic Party (since April 2009)
Experience: Served in state Assembly 1965-74; U.S. Congress 1975-1982; state Assembly 1988-92; Senate 1996-2004 (the latter six years as Senate leader).