For 26 years, Judy Lemons worked for three Members from the same California district. Her experiences with Representatives Phil Burton, Sala Burton, and Nancy Pelosi, as well as her time spent working for two subcommittees, transformed her into an accomplished congressional advocate for the San Francisco community.
Growing up in a “dyed-in-the-wool” Democratic family led Judy Lemons to a career on Capitol Hill. From 1975 to 2002, Lemons worked for three Representatives from the same San Francisco district: Phil Burton, Sala Burton, and Nancy Pelosi. In her oral history, she traces her path from being a secretary for the National Parks and Insular Affairs Subcommittee (Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs) to chief of staff for Congresswoman Pelosi.
Lemons’ diverse legislative focus, ranging from National Parks to student visa laws, provides a unique perspective on how Members create, negotiate, and pass bills. Throughout the interview, she reflects on the careers of the Representatives she worked for, including their relationships with other Members, how seniority shaped their political life on the Hill, and the results of Phil Burton’s 1976 Majority Leader race and Nancy Pelosi’s successful 2001 campaign for Democratic Whip. Lemons describes the changing role of women staff in the House since the 1970s, including the significance of the 1992 election, known as the “Year of the Woman.”
Born in 1945, in Santa Paula, California, Lemons is the youngest child of Anna (Clepper) and Elmer Lemons. During the first 10 years of her life, her family moved throughout California, residing wherever her father could find work as a manual laborer. The family built a home and settled in Bakersfield, California, where Lemons graduated from South High School in 1964. Lemons earned a degree in psychology from California State University, Bakersfield in 1970. After graduating, she spent the next two years traveling the United States and Europe.
Following the death of her mother, Lemons moved to Washington, D.C., in 1972. She took a job at a political consulting firm and worked there for a year and a half.
The House Democratic Caucus, led by California Congressman Phil Burton, hired Lemons as a secretary in 1974. After two years, she briefly left the Hill to work for California Governor Jerry Brown, but was invited back by Congressman Burton in 1976. Lemons worked for the Subcommittee on National Parks and Insular Affairs (Interior and Insular Affairs Committee), which Burton chaired, until 1980. Burton then became the chairman of Subcommittee on Labor (Education and Labor Committee), and Lemons worked with him until his death in May 1983.
When Phil’s wife, Sala Burton, decided to run for the open seat she asked Lemons to help her campaign. Sala Burton was elected to Congress in June 1983 and assigned to the House Rules Committee. Burton hired Lemons as her staff liaison for the Rules Committee, a position she held for four years until the Congresswoman’s death in February 1987.
Nancy Pelosi won the special election for the open seat in June 1987. For the next 13 years, Lemons worked as Pelosi’s chief of staff. She oversaw the office’s response to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, organized legislation for the preservation of the Presidio in San Francisco, and aided Representative Pelosi with her ascent to leadership.
Lemons retired from the Hill in 2002. She remains involved in politics as a legislative consultant in the Washington metropolitan area.