On a quiet block in downtown Sacramento, the John L. Burton Democratic Headquarters is a light, airy, earth-toned building that looks like it could just as easily be a holistic wellness center as the central command for the ruling political party of the country’s most populous state. The parking spots out front are each labeled with words like “Equality,” “Pride,” and “Diversity;” dog bowls sit inside entryways for staff pet visits; the bathroom stalls are adorned with grafitti featuring quotes by feminists including Tina Fey and Geraldine Ferraro.
“They didn’t let me use my first-choice Tina quote,” says Angie Tate, the state party’s chief financial officer and force behind the purchase and design of the now Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Gold Certified building. The quote that she wanted to post in the public ladies room of a high-profile hub of campaign fundraising? “The definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.”
Tate’s candid passion is not unlike that of her mentor, California Democratic Party Chair John Burton, an icon of San Francisco progressive politics, once called “an excitable, profane lefty,” who hired Tate as a fundraiser 18 years ago when he was state senate pro tem and she was five and a half months pregnant with twins. As one of Governor Jerry Brown’s top political fundraisers, Tate has been a central player in California’s remarkable budgetary turnaround of the past five years, including the passage of a critical water bond and rainy day fund, as well as in the advancement of the governor’s ambitious climate-change policy efforts.
That agenda recently won a qualified victory when the state legislature passed the Clean Energy and Pollution Act of 2015 (SB 350). The final bill dropped a major petroleum use reduction component, thanks to an aggressive oil lobby, but set a state commitment to a 50% increase in energy efficiency in buildings, and a goal of 50% of state utilities’ power coming from renewable energy, all by 2030. The vote came one day after Brown sent a much-publicized smackdown to Republican presidential candidate and climate change denier Dr. Ben Carson in the form of an extensive United Nations scientific report on a flash drive.
“California has gone faster and further than any state to fight climate change, and we won’t quit,” says Tate, noting that in addition to setting California’s own goals, the governor has also made collaborative climate change agreements with Oregon, Washington, Canada, Mexico, and China–the last making California the only state to do so. “The energy-efficiency requirement in buildings is especially sweet for me, given the work we did to get our LEED status.”
Tate speaks about the new headquarters as if it’s one of her children, even as she has four actual kids at home—all in high school, including her childrens’ Mexican-born friend who has lived primarily with Tate’s family since he was in first grade and is applying to Ivy League colleges as he works towards citizenship. And for all of her work stewarding the California Democratic Party’s coffers, it’s clear that the building is her proudest political legacy to date, the physical embodiment of an ethos that she hopes will make California an economic and environmental leader for years to come. In 2013 she bought the building, an old party supply warehouse, for the “screaming deal” of $820,000 outright, and had the structure retrofitted to meet stringent LEED material, energy, and water use requirements in only a year. The building’s many sustainable features include solar power, an innovative energy-redistributing HVAC system, and a main conference table built from a reclaimed local fallen oak tree.
Owning the building frees the party from what had been mission-inhibiting financial constraints. “We have to pay for all of our elections in a very complicated financial percentage based on federal and state law,” says Tate. “In years that there are presidential and senatorial elections, more of our bills have to be paid with federal money, which is really hard to raise. Owning our own building outright and taking all of that rent off the table was why buying our own headquarters was super-important, so that we can invest more money in electing democrats, which is our mission.”
And the timing was perfect. “Three weeks later, they announced the [Sacramento Kings] arena deal,” says Tate. “My property value went through the roof. The Sacramento Bee did a really nice piece in their business section talking about the financial smart move of the Democrats. Which was great, because I have a very conservative father, and he doesn’t believe Democrats can manage money, nor make good decisions.”
The building has “Angie all over it,” as one staffer says, because Burton let her take full control of the project. “He trusts me and he hires smart people to do their job and doesn’t micromanage,” says Tate. “I said to him, we need to buy a building for X, Y, and Z. He’s like, well, I don’t give a fuck what you do. I’m like, huh, okay then. Good to hear that. I spent a year figuring out, what does that mean, what do I want, what do I need to raise to do that. We didn’t have any funds set aside—I would have to go out and raise all that money.”
But convincing donors to give money for an office on top of campaign contributions, especially with no specific promises or strings attached, was a tough ask, requiring a tag-team effort with California Democratic Party senior strategist Shawnda Westly. Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer was also a major sponsor of the LEED certification project, which included $2 million in renovations on top of the building purchase.
“I quickly decided the easiest way to raise the money,” says Tate, “and to give John the credit that he never wants, was to name it the John L. Burton Democratic Headquarters without telling him.”
Tate says the building project was in many ways her “love letter to John,” a longtime liberal leader known as the California Legislature’s “most fiery, labor-backed populist,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
“He’s been such an amazing boss, and he’s been a voice for folks that don’t have a voice,” says Tate. He’s also a living example of reformation and second chances. After following his brother Phil to the California State Assembly and then to the U.S. House of Representatives, Burton resigned in 1982 to go to rehab for drug and alcohol addiction. He returned to the California Assembly six years later, eventually rising to the State Senate and the party chairmanship. In his honor, the wall of the headquarters’ largest stairwell displays the lyric “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again,” created with mismatched, found letters collected by Tate and her children over a period of many months.
Even if the building is named for a man, Tate is equally passionate about recognizing women’s major contributions to California politics, which she says are massive and growing under Brown but underacknowledged. The day after the 2014 election, Tate and Westly hosted a reception at the headquarters with the women of the California Republican Party to celebrate their collective efforts, under the banner #WinLikeAGirl.
“Capitol Weekly has this annual list of the top non-elected political people in California, and they rank it,” says Tate. “When it started about five years ago, there were 14 women on it. Now they’re up to 33 (note: now 36 as of the August 2015 list) because Shawnda and I have been basically on a jihad, saying you can’t just ignore all the women that the governor’s hired.”
California is the most progressive state by far on issues like paid parental leave, but Tate says it’s also critical that political leaders like Brown and Burton model equal, supportive hiring practices that don’t treat family responsibility as a problem. “John’s pretty funny,” she says. “He’s like, ‘You hire a woman, before they’re going to bed they’re working on your shit. They wake up in the middle of the night, they’re worried about your shit. You wake up in the morning, and they call you before you wanted to be called, to tell you they figured out your shit.'”
Burton hired Tate when she was pregnant; her twins were premature and remained in the hospital for four and a half months after they were born.
“I came into the office while they were still in the hospital, and he was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, I cannot sit at home in my closet crying anymore. Can’t I just come to work . . . I want to have a place where I can fake that shit’s going to be okay,” Tate says. “Then my son came home, and then a week later, my daughter came home on my 30th birthday. He said, ‘You have eight and a half months paid. This shit will be here when you get back.'”
The headquarters, too, is an opportunity for the party to promote economic and environmental responsibility by example rather than just words, says Tate. “There’s a reason for all of the energy efficiencies. There’s a reason we’re on a public transit line. There’s a reason we put the shower in, so people could ride their bikes. I have to go to dinner with my conservative father all the time, and I want to be able to say, in the state of California you can financially do the right things. It will save you money over the long term towards the cost of the electricity, and for the organization and the people that work there, it’s meaningful.”
When Burton’s term ends in 2017 and he steps down, Tate has said she will leave her full-time position at the party and probably do some combination of helping with his foundation for homeless children and working with the Browns on their continuing priorities. But for now, the focus is on the 2016 election and having the backs of the Democratic candidates.
“There’s a lot of money in politics, and it’s like I’ve told my kids, if you have enemies, good,” says Tate. “That means you stood up for something. In the presidential race, we’re here to supply a blue state without spending money. In that role we protect our own, because they’re speaking for our children. People that work in this building work here, because they care and they want to leave the next generation a better place.”