Pull Kristi Burton's string, and the wind-up doll may say a couple of things. The right of protection for every human being — that's one of her signature catchphrases. As are laying a common sense foundation and determining a concrete definition. But try to get the 21-year-old sponsor of Amendment 48 — the so-called "Personhood Amendment" that would alter the Colorado Constitution to define a "person" as beginning at the moment of fertilization — to admit that her ballot initiative has implications that go much further than establishing definitions, and the doll shuts down.
Kristi Burton is simply not wired that way.
Independence Institute president Jon Caldara learned this firsthand when he moderated an Independent Thinking debate between Burton and Fofi Mendez, the campaign director for No on 48. Despite Caldara's self-proclaimed efforts to "hold her to the fire," Burton displayed the icy unflappability and steel resolve of the best policy wonks, dogmatic in her black blazer and shoulder-length blond hair, a chilling premonition of Fox News sound bites yet to be. Repeatedly insisting that her only goal was to establish a concrete definition of when life begins so that people can reasonably debate the issues, Burton never gave credence to claims that her many opponents are howling from the rooftops: that, if passed, this amendment would have the potential to outlaw abortion, birth control and stem-cell research and, in some instances, pit a mother's health against that of her unborn child. She never acknowledged that her amendment could potentially lead to a legal battle over Roe v. Wade in the United States Supreme Court.
Instead, she held fast to her talking points.
"Those are issues that should be dealt with by our courts and legislature," Burton responded time and time again, referring to the thousands of instances when the word "person" appears in Colorado statutes, which would all have to be re-examined if the amendment passes. "But before we can debate any of them, we need to establish a concrete definition."
You could almost make it into a drinking game.
"She's got a million-dollar genuine smile," Caldara said after the debate. "She's vivacious, she's attractive, she's so on point you can't pull her off of it! When I own a nuclear power plant and it goes all Chernobyl on me, I'm hiring her as my PR flack.... She's an incredibly impressive woman, and she's got a future, for sure. I'm not with her on her issue — but the lady has a future."
Mendez was also impressed by Burton's skills, but believes the way she wields them is dangerous. "My take on Ms. Burton is that her enthusiasm and idealism are commendable until those qualities start to hurt real families and create a legal nightmare in the Colorado Constitution," she says. "In her discussion around what Amendment 48 would do, Ms. Burton refuses to answer any real questions."
Kristi Burton tries to answer a few real questions when I interview her in KBDI's green room, where her blazer-clad father is seated alongside her. But when I ask for the most rebellious thing she's ever done, she's absolutely stumped, and a day later still can't come up with an answer. She thought about getting a tattoo once, she says, either the Chinese symbol for "eternal love" or "enough," but she never followed through.
Born in Peyton, Colorado, to Michael and Debra Burton, Kristi was raised in a religious household and home-schooled by her mother, as were her two younger brothers. As a child, she remembers playing with goats on her family's ranch; in high school, she qualified for the nationals as a debater.
"A lot of people say, 'Oh, if you're home-schooled, you don't get to be socialized.' I don't feel that's really true," she says. "We did take some classes, art classes and writing classes, with other students, and my brothers played sports. It also gave me a lot of opportunities to try things that kids in school all day couldn't."
Like graduating early, for example. A tenacious student who early on dreamed of being a teacher like her mom, Burton finished high school when she was fifteen. She worked for two years at her father's real-estate firm, established a girls' group at her church and attended music programs to hone her skills as a vocalist and recorder player. At seventeen, Burton began taking classes through Oak Brook College of Law and Government, an online law school whose mission is "to train individuals who desire to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ through service as advocates of truth, counselors of reconciliation, and ministers of justice in the fields of law and government policy." (Oak Brook students are also encouraged to "rely upon the indwelling Holy Spirit to give them the power to develop within them Christ-like character qualities.")
Two years ago, she decided she was ready to act on the vision she'd had while sick in bed as a thirteen-year-old, praying: that it was her calling to protect those who couldn't protect themselves. Specifically, the unborn.
"I really feel like we should all help people, and I like to help people who really don't have a voice," she says. "You could pick a lot of people who don't have a voice, but currently in America, where I live right now, unborn children don't have a voice. They can't speak for themselves, so I would like to do my best to see what I can do to help them."
At a legal conference, she met an Oak Brook alum named Mark Meuser who had experience with pro-life causes. Meuser helped Burton write the language that would become Amendment 48, this purposefully simple line: "As used in sections 3, 6, and 25 of Article II of the state constitution, the terms 'person' or 'persons' shall include any human being from the moment of fertilization."
After that, Burton established Colorado for Equal Rights and, with the help of her parents, set about getting her proposal — the first constitutional amendment of its kind in the country — on the ballot. "It was a long process," she says. "We had to call the secretary of state's office a lot of times, we had to go through a couple of boards before we could start collecting signatures, and the opposition took us to court to challenge the single subject."
But this summer, Amendment 48 cleared all hurdles, collecting a record-setting 130,000 signatures through a primarily volunteer effort and making it onto the November ballot. Burton's been stumping ever since.
"Right now I'm in the middle of a state tour, so today I had to get up at five," she says with a roll of her eyes. "I had to speak at a Republican club, do a few debates, meet with a reporter; I'm the spokesperson, so I do a bunch of these events — from meeting at people's homes to meeting in churches, at clubs or organizations. I guess right now it's really just a bunch of meetings."
Burton finds the constant stumping both fun and exhausting, but says she still finds time to relax. She likes to unwind by hanging out with friends and going to movies. She can't exactly remember the last movie she saw, but she's pretty sure it was "the Batman movie." On the road, she escapes into the music of Christian rockers Casting Crowns and Mark Schultz. And there's plenty to escape from.
"I've been really surprised by how extreme people are with their comments on blogs or in e-mails," says Burton, noting that one poster wished she had been aborted. "People disagree with me — I know that, that's fine. People are always going to disagree; that's why we need a discussion on the issue. But the names they've called me and my parents, and the bad things that they hope happen to us — it's just really shocking."
But there are highs along with the lows. When she's at the office, manning the phones, callers are shocked to learn that they're actually talking to the Kristi Burton. They can't believe she's so hands-on that she actually answers the phones. She gets a kick out of that. "I'm the same normal person I was two years before this started," she says with a laugh. "I guess I'm realizing that some people don't think I'm a normal person. But I am."
If it's normal for a 21-year-old to almost single-handedly get a proposed amendment to the state constitution on the ballot, a measure that has the power to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of women, that is.
"I don't think it's a matter of me telling women how to live their lives, because, honestly, I can't," she responds. "That's why it's on the ballot. That's why every voter in Colorado gets to decide. I'm simply putting a question before the voters of Colorado and, you know, defining things. Our one-sentence amendment is based in modern medical science, and it addresses an outdated belief. When the current constitution was written, the biological information we now have available didn't exist, and so all I'm saying is, knowing what we know now, maybe we should take another look."
Burton is quick to say that 35 years ago, at the time of Roe v. Wade, science and medicine couldn't prove that life begins at fertilization — but now they can. This is one of her set pieces, and she trumpets the strength of this science as an inarguable truth demanding the redefinition of when life begins. But she's not so high on other forms of science.
"I don't feel like there is enough scientific evidence to prove evolution," says the Oak Brook student. (The online school's mission statement requires that students reject evolution.) "And I think there is a lot of science on the other end that proves creation. I don't get into that issue hugely, though. I'm not super-interested in that issue, and I don't see it as related to the amendment itself."
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And that's as much as Burton wants to say about believing in a Flintstonian world where dinosaurs and man once co-existed. The question she's asked most frequently: What, exactly, would her amendment do? For this, her answer is as well-rehearsed as any high-school debate speech.
"Our goal is to lay a common-sense foundation, a concrete definition of what it is to be a person for dealing with those issues later on," she says. "Sure, birth control and abortion will have to be dealt with, but how can we deal with them without a definition? We can't effectively. That really is our position."
Whenever you pull her string.