PHOTO INDEX: ATTORNEY MICHAEL "BUTTERS" BUTERA AND OUR CONVENTION LOGO.
BUTTERS AT THE BAT
I first met Michael Butera in 1969 at my cousin Joey Gillespie’s Graduation Party and even back then, “Butters” Butera (having had no nicknames that ever stuck, I envy people who have enduring ones) was always in the newspaper. As a wrestler, and Student Body President at the newly merged Wyoming Area High School, “Butters” got the front page of The Dispatch along with the SBP’s of Pittston Area and my old alma mater St. John’s. Through the years, Butera who went on to law school was in the news for his service on the school board. He was not shy to speak about controversial education issues. Even when Butera was riding a bike, he got in the news. One day in what is now the Quinn’s Supermarket Parking lot on Kennedy Blvd in Pittston, Butera was riding his bike. A car door opened and the barrister went ass over tea cup separating his shoulder. News reports in the Citizen’s Voice reported that a Luzerne County Court Judge awarded him over a half a million dollars for his injury. Butera has occupied full page ads in his hometown newspaper for everything from the Cherry Blossom Festival to Graduation supplements. Most recently, Butera was seen on file footage when a Pittston Twp. employee pleaded guilty to some financial problems. Butera was her Attorney. But as Atty. Butera heads out to Denver to the Democratic National Convention, he is now finding himself in print in the Rockies. Former Times Leader reporter Jean Torkleson now working for the Rocky Mountain News interviewed Butera and plans to follow up on his activities at the convention. In the news story, Butera talks about his passion for politics, and his unwavering support of Senator Clinton. Butera also candidly confides how his politics collided with his now fractured Catholicism and faith in the 1980s. Here’s that article:
Hillary fan in Obama land
A Pennsylvania pol and family come to the DNC, ready to switch allegience
By Jean Torkelson
Saturday, August 23, 2008
The stocky former wrestler shoots over the Susquehanna River bridge, pedaling toward his law office on Main Street.
Beneath the bicyclist's striped polo shirt beats a rebel's heart.
Mike Butera is a lawyer who doesn't wear a seatbelt or a helmet - nah, he figures, that's just inviting an accident.
Politics is deliciously risky too: From his office window a lone "Hillary" sign tilts defiantly.
He's a rebel and a seasoned political hand, yet Mike Butera has lived and worked his entire 57 years within a mile of Pittston, a former mining town in northeastern Pennsylvania where his Sicilian grandparents immigrated more than 100 years ago.
While he's made a hobby of visiting "the great American cities," Butera has never been to Denver.
That is, until today, when he arrives as one of Pennsylvania's 187 delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
How will this Clinton loyalist fare as he rides the Barack Obama tide? What electoral pressures will be on his linchpin state face as he goes into the convention? And just how will the active, sports-loving Butera family adapt to the rarified air of the Rockies?
The Rocky Mountain News will follow Butera, with his family, throughout convention week as he helps make political history.
The clan includes Butera, who specializes in criminal defense work and domestic relations; his second wife, Mary, 46, a former flight attendant with a resemblance to the actress Sharon Stone, and their 9-year-old son, Peter - "He's not into kid's stuff," says his proud Dad - who likes to follow politics along with his folks.
"He's very mature for his age and I'm very immature for my age so we meet in the middle," cracks Dad, as he folds Peter in a hug.
His own youth? As a teenager back in '68, "I was rootin' for the hippies," Butera grins.
Heck, he was a hippie. The mention of Recreate 68 - the protest group that threatens to bring Chicago-style chaos to the Denver convention - brings a nostalgic gleam to Butera's eye: "I may join that group. I'll be the man on the inside!"
Heart for Hillary
Butera's heart, as well as his first-ballot vote, go to Hillary Clinton. He's supported the family dynasty since he was a delegate for then-unknown Bill Clinton at the 1992 convention.
Assuming Clinton then releases her delegates, Butera, a proud, "staunch liberal" all his life, will gladly support Obama - though the thought of a political rumble, however unlikely, make his eyes dance: "Theoretically, anything can happen," he says.
In northeastern Pennsylvania, enthusiastic Obama-backing makes Butera a rebel yet again.
He hails from a region that slapped Obama with his heaviest primary defeat in the country.
Pittston is in a necklace of small towns linked to Wilkes-Barre, which, with its twin city, Scranton, has a combined 550,000-plus population rooted to New Deal politics and traditional working-class values.
Here, when you say "mountains," you mean the lush, rolling forests of the Poconos, known since the 1950s for honeymoon idylls and heart-shaped bathtubs. For vacationers of sterner stuff, there are tours down the 300-foot shaft of the old McDade Mine in Scranton, a monument to the powerful, lingering legacy of anthracite coal.
This is Hillary country, big time. Her Welsh grandparents settled in Scranton and she was baptized there. Her brothers still consider the family cottage at nearby Lake Winola as "home."
This year, how the region's "blue collar Democrats" vote may be crucial to where Pennsylvania's 23 electoral votes will go.
"The road to the White House comes through here," local radio personality Steve Corbett likes to taunt the candidates on his daily talk show. He's proved it by nabbing live interviews with, among other national figures, Bill Clinton, Hillary (twice) and Obama.
In this seasoned Democratic stronghold, Obama is seen as inexperienced and suspiciously elitist - a man who favors la-te-da arugula lettuce in a region that sticks to zucchinis and cardoons, a peasant vegetable from Italy.
This is speak-your-mind country, too, where Corbett stokes the fires of rebellion every day, regularly thundering out one of his favorite lines: "I'm with Hillary Clinton until the last light bulb burns out in America!"
Fair warning, in an uncertain political year: Mike Butera makes lousy predictions.
He's the first to say so, and he relishes telling the story again at the Gramercy Ballroom and Restaurant on Main Street.
Here, he and a group of fellow lawyers have met for lunch every day since - well, forever. It's the kind of unpretentious place that attracts stories like this: One day a lawyer-colleague came in to the Gramercy with the actor Martin Sheen, a friend, and introduced him to the owner, Mike Augello. As the story goes, Augello took one cool look at the celebrity and said, "I kind of thought so. What'll you have for lunch?"
It's the kind of place where Butera's son, Peter, is as welcome as the big guys. On this day, Peter, comes tooling up Main Street on his bike, and slings it, unlocked, against the building.
The guys settle in for Augello's fresh vegetable soup, and Butera launches into his "predictions" story.
"In 1964," Butera begins, "I predicted the Dave Clark Five would be bigger than the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, because those groups didn't have an organ player. I believed George McGovern would handily defeat Richard Nixon. But my worst prediction ever" (the former hippie rolls his eyes): "A friend had six tickets to Woodstock. That Friday it started to pour rain. 'I'm not goin',' I said. 'It's gonna pour - nobody's gonna go to that thing!' "
No matter how many times he tells it, his audience laughs.
"This area is unique," Butera explains later. "Your car breaks down, you take it to a guy on the corner who owns the garage that his father owned. You know you're not gonna get ripped off. No matter where you go, you see people you know. It's a comfortable feeling. People still don't lock their doors."
Across the river, just a five minute bike-spin away, is the Butera's home in West Pittston, the upscale twin to Pittston. Their spacious, 60-year-old brick ranch features original Italian glass and a grand picture window that opens onto the Susquehanna.
Within a mile are countless family members - including Mike's first wife, with whom he raised three kids.
"Thank God we all get along, that's all I have to say," Mary Butera laughs.
Mary Butera grew up in Old Forge, another in the necklace of small communities outside Wilkes-Barre. Famed for its pizza, Old Forge is where Hillary stopped for a pizza break during the primary.
Ah, Hillary. "She was an easy sell," Butera says wistfully. "But even with Obama, there's still no contest against the Republicans. How do you argue for four more years? The economy's terrible, Americans are being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's been a disaster."
Butera has loved politics since he was a kid. Three generations of family have supported the Democratic Party, which Butera believes is still the champion "of the common person, the underdog." As a 9- year-old, he recalls dashing up to shake John Kennedy's hand as the future president rode a motorcade down Main Street.
No such handshake for the current president: Bush, Butera says passionately, is a perpetrator of "fraud and lies," from a burgeoning deficit, to tax policies that benefit the wealthy, to a feckless war.
"I think Barack Obama will turn all that around. He will ease the energy crisis and the recession, (do away) with corporate welfare and ease a lot of the suffering of the American public."
Politics will also have a lighter side in Colorado - the Buteras plan some biking and will check out Coors Field, for sure. "Anything with a scorecard, we're there," Mary Butera says.
Father and son also share a guilty pleasure - the raw and witty TV series South Park, set you-know-where. While they're here, the pair hope to slip away to see some of the punch lines, for real. Mary Butera just rolls her eyes.
Always ready for a fight
Aside from his carefully kept legal work, Butera's office resembles the contents of a cheerfully chaotic attic - the mark, perhaps, of a creative person? "That's being kind," Butera chuckles. "It's the office of a slob."
Owl sculptures perch everywhere - that's a mascot of Temple University in Philadelphia, where Butera went to law school. It sparked a lifelong love of that city. If it had been a better place to raise kids, he would have stayed there after graduation.
Biking clothes and suits hang in a wardrobe - as the attorney on countless boards and commissions, Butera's always ready for a quick change. Fittingly, he's been named one of the state's "Super Lawyers" by Philadelphia Magazine, four years running. The magazine's latest framed tribute is propped against a table leg, waiting to be hung. Tucked in a corner is a fine picture of Pope John Paul II.
"But look - his picture's on a dartboard," Butera chortles, and adds, "I'm a recovering Catholic. I haven't been to church in a long time. It all stems from politics."
Back in 1984, Butera was thrilled that Geraldine Ferraro - a woman and fellow Italian - would be Walter Mondale's running mate. Then, he says, the local bishop, James Timlin, called a news conference to warn his northeastern Pennsylvania flock away from Ferraro, who favored abortion rights.
"I sent Timlin a scathing letter," Butera says. "I called him a hypocrite, that the only reason he was supporting Reagan-Bush was because they favored tax credits for Catholic schools. So he called me up and laid into me and we had a screaming match."
That ended Butera's Catholicism. Early on, all the "anti-establishment guy" ever wanted to be was a teacher and a wrestling coach. But the young rebel got turned off to teaching because he had to play up to local politicians to get a job.
"Then I became a local politician - I became the thing I didn't like," he muses. After two terms as a school board member and after serving countless political appointments, "Life never ceases to amaze me."
Especially since he's not so good at predictions.
In two words, here's his worst nightmare: Tom Ridge. If McCain picks the former popular Pennsylvania governor as his running mate - well, it doesn't bear thinking about.
But one challenge at a time. Last week, on Corbett's radio show, Butera told listeners that when it came to his delegate-vote, he would follow Hillary's lead wherever it took him. "Personally, I'm always ready for a rumble. I'd love to see a floor fight," Butera said.
Let the games begin.
© Rocky Mountain News