Bill Burton, the former Deputy Press Secretary for President Obama and co-founder of Priorities USA, has joined former Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz’s team as he mulls a presidential campaign.
Burton, whose resume includes working for four other Democratic lawmakers since 2000 and founding a Democratic super PAC, has received pushback from members of his own party who fear Shultz would divide the Democratic vote in 2020. Shultz announced on January 27, 2019, that he is considering an independent run.
We asked Burton via email what inspired him to join Shultz’s team. He responded: “Howard is a good man who loves his family and his country. I’m with him on this journey because I think he’s asking the very important question of what is the most important thing he can do to help make sure Donald Trump doesn’t get a second term.”
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Bill Burton Pushed Back Against Criticism From Democrats, Stating That Creativity is Needed to Defeat President Trump in 2020
Some Democrats, including Burton’s former White House colleagues, have expressed concern that Shultz would split the Democratic vote and therefore help President Trump get re-elected. One of those people was Jon Lovett, a former speechwriter for President Obama who is now part of the team at Crooked Media, which produces the “Pod Save America” podcast. In an open letter to Shultz, Lovett urged him to run as a Democrat if he was serious about launching a campaign.
In a phone interview with CNN, Burton explained that he was not convinced that any of the “front-running presidential candidates can beat Donald Trump.” As for why he is backing Shultz, Burton said, “I’m doing this because I think our country is in crisis and I think we should be imaginative as for how to fix it.”
Burton made an appearance on MSNBC’s “Meet the Press Daily” on January 29. He started by stating that he is still a Democrat, but joined Shultz because he feels the former CEO is a “great guy” who wants to “make America a better place.”
2. Bill Burton Criticized Third-Party Candidates in a 2016 Column
Bill Burton has previously expressed tough criticism for third-party candidates. His August 2016 op-ed in the Sacramento Bee quickly made the rounds on social media following the announcement that he would join Howard Shultz’s potential campaign.
In the column, Burton cautioned that a third-party candidate could help Donald Trump get elected. It’s worth pointing out that at the time Burton penned this op-ed, he was working for a consulting firm, not for a politician. The piece reads in part:
“Now I’m of the opinion that Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who is sympathetic to the anti-vaccination movement, and others angry about Bernie Sanders losing in the primary are unhappy with the choice of Clinton and Trump. But a Trump presidency would mean the dismantling of basically every important progressive achievement over the last century, and progressives need to keep that in mind.
If Stein or Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson eat into Clinton’s support even a little, that could matter in a close election. And in the same way I would bet that Ralph Nader – or at least many of his supporters – wishes that he didn’t help to make George W. Bush our 43rd commander in chief, I suppose Stein supporters would not want to be in the position of explaining to their kids how they helped make Trump president.”
In the MSNBC interview referenced above, Burton explained that he stands by his statements in the op-ed because “Howard Shultz is not Jill Stein.” He went on to say that Shultz feels American voters need a centrist choice because, in his words, the Republican and Democrat parties have shifted too far to the right and left.
3. Burton Served as President Obama’s National Press Secretary During the Campaign & Joined the White House Staff as Deputy Press Secretary
Bill Burton joined the “Obama For America” campaign in January of 2007. He served as the National Press Secretary based out of Chicago, at times appearing on-camera to promote then-candidate Obama. One of those examples was an appearance on Fox & Friends a few weeks before the 2008 election; the clip is embedded above.
During that interview, Burton defended his boss against allegations that he was connected to Bill Ayers. Ayers was the former leader of the Weather Underground, a group accused of carrying out bombings in the 1970s against targets including the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon. Ayers was never convicted. During the election, President Obama acknowledged that he met Ayers, but distanced himself after learning about Ayers’ past.
The McCain campaign used this prior affiliation in an ad, and that’s what Burton was responding to in the above interview. Burton argued that it was a “distraction” and non-issue that had already been debated and investigated. He also accused the McCain campaign of bringing it up in order to avoid discussing the state of the economy.
After the election, Burton stayed on as President Obama’s Deputy Press Secretary under Robert Gibbs. He left the White House in February of 2011 and co-founded the Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA Action. The group’s first goal was to help President Obama win a second term.
4. Burton Has Worked For Four Other Democratic Lawmakers & the DCCC
Bill Burton got his start in politics working for Rep. Bill Luther, a Democrat from Minnesota. Burton served as Luther’s press secretary for 18 months before going to work for Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa.
Burton’s next career move was to focus on campaigns. He was the Iowa Communications Director for House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who had decided to run for president. Gephardt dropped out of the race after losing the Iowa caucus to then-Senator John Kerry.
Burton was hired by the Kerry campaign following the Iowa caucus, serving as the Midwestern Communications Director. After the election, Burton went back to Washington D.C. where he was the communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
As mentioned above, Burton founded Priorities USA after leaving the Obama administration. In the years since then, Burton has worked in the communications and consulting world, first for the Global Strategy Group and then SKDKnickerbocker. He left SKDKnickerbocker in order to become an adviser to Howard Shultz.
5. Bill Burton Met His Former Wife, Laura Capps, on the Political Trail
Bill Burton met his now ex-wife, Laura Capps, on the campaign trail in Iowa. Her mother is former Rep. Lois Capps, who represented California in Congress until 2017. Burton was working for Rep. Richard Gephardt while Capps was an Iowa press secretary for the Kerry campaign. They later worked together during the general election.
Burton and Capps tied the knot on July 7, 2007. The beginning of their marriage meant a lot of time spent commuting, as explained in the New York Times wedding announcement. She was in Santa Barbara while Burton was in Chicago working on the Obama campaign. The couple welcomed a son in 2011. They have since divorced.
Burton’s hometown is Buffalo, New York, and he earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota.
Correction: Bill Burton and Laura Capps are divorced. A former version of this article implied they were still married.