This squishy centrist has spent so much time writing about the self-destructive, cult-like madness of California’s “heads-on-sticks” Republicans lately that he needed his fix of left-wing cant. So on Monday night, I took a drive over to the Santa Monica library.

In an auditorium there, the new chair of the state Democratic Party, the legislative legend John Burton, was addressing a crowd of Democratic activists. The evening didn’t disappoint (Except perhaps in his failure to use profanity. When Burton was leading the state Senate five years ago and I was a reporter haunting the halls of the Capitol, he rarely failed to say interesting things in language that I couldn’t quote in a family newspaper).

Burton talked dismissively of “business Democrats” and urged the room of liberals to “work in the primary and elect the libs.” He also thundered at one point: “I’m to the left of anyone in this state, including Barbara Lee.” Let’s just say he’s not exactly the Terry McAuliffe of the West.

It’s a little bit jarring to see Burton as the leader of the Democratic party in the state. And it’s not hard to see why he might give, say, Democratic political consultants and pollsters heartburn. Burton, like so many brilliant people who has been around the block, has seen too much B.S. over too many years to be a total team player. He took a shot at the Obama Justice Department for embracing some Bush positions on the treatment of Guantanamo detainees and terrorism suspects. He criticized party leaders for failing to put their money into the fight against Prop 11, the redistricting measure that passed narrowly last fall. And he touched the third rail, saying it was time to take on Prop 13.

In this era of feel-your-pain sensitivity, watching Burton conduct a town-hall-style offers plenty of old-school, bull-in-the-china-shop fun. He mocked long-winded questioners. When one questioner seemed to be questioning why that the party was compromising on issues, he yelled at her.

And with a mischievous joke, he gently but unmistakably undercut Santa Monica City Councilman Bobby Shriver, who is considering a run for attorney general (and was sitting in the audience), by suggesting a rise from local office in Santa Monica to statewide office might be a bridge too far. “I’m an old baseball guy, and very few people move from the D league to the majors.” Burton also quipped that he doesn’t want Shriver to run because then all of Shriver’s rich friends – Maria Shriver’s brother is well-connected – will give to his campaign instead of the party.

Three more things about the evening:

1. Burton is just about the only prominent person in California political life who talks in detail about the needs of the poor and the value of welfare. He explained – with specific numbers – how declines in public assistance hurt people who depend on government checks to live. Burton does this out of conviction, clearly, but his focus also will serve his party well politically in these times when so many people are becoming poorer.

2. There was almost no conversation about the May 19 special election and the measures on the ballot. Liberal activists simply didn’t seem to care. There was plenty of conversation about policies that might be pursued after the election.

3. The room was thick with political pragmatism. That surprised me, given that this was a San Francisco political warhorse talking to Santa Monica activists. But again and again the conversation turned to the importance of winning elections. And there was considerable discussion about how the party could win over Decline to State voters and Republicans in mountain and rural counties. Burton made clear that he was a believer in ideological flexibility when working in red California. “If you want to have a litmus test for every Democrat and end up with 43 Republicans [the Assembly has 80 members],” Burton said, “that is not my deal.”