Norm Mineta and I served locally, starting during turbulent times with the Vietnam War, the War on Poverty and social unrest as we moved closer to the millennium. Norm was mayor of San Jose; I was a Santa Clara County supervisor.
We saw each other often and stayed in touch, and it seemed like we never missed each other’s political campaign events. One was my event at then Le Baron Hotel in North San Jose. Norm had a knack for remembering names while walking through the crowd, and sometimes mixed in a slight touch of business with people such as, “Hey did you get that permit?”
The major issues at the time involved growth. I recall phone calls and lunches when I enjoyed Norm’s quiet sense of humor as we discussed my position on the Local Agency Formation Commission, which dealt with population growth, city and county boundaries and special districts such as fire and water. Our consensus at the time was approaching transportation challenges, housing matters and fair representation with an eye toward regionalism.
Norm and I had a couple of hardy laughs over serious matters, too. A former San Jose city manager previously with San Diego once urged Norm to go along with something called progressive city funding. Known as a “mayor’s sign off,” it would have allowed mayors to sign off on any funds coming to the county or its cities. It made headlines in the local news where I was vocal in my opposition. At a mutually attended gathering in Monterey with the newspaper on the table, Norm walked by, and I attempted a weak apology. He threw up his arms and we both laughed. My laugh included a tinge of embarrassment.
One of my favorite memories of Norm involves the time he, as mayor, was on a dais which became surrounded by protestors. Norm calmly completed the meeting as if nobody was distracting him.
He became a member of Congress, and I was elected to the California Assembly.
During a visit to Washington D.C., Norm personally took my wife Suzanne and I to the House chambers, the legislative dining room, up and down elevators and even sat us in the chair of the Speaker of the House.
One day, as I sat alone in my Assembly office in Sacramento, there was a quiet knock on the open door. Then-Congressman Norm Mineta walked in, sat himself in front of me like a constituent and said, “I understand you have some very important issues before the Assembly today that I would like to discuss with you.”
On another occasion, I was sitting in Norm’s Washington office with him when an important call came in from a Santa Clara County official. Norm turned to me and said, “shall I take this call?” as if to ask my permission.
I was assisting with a property use expansion proposal and decided to call Norm in Washington. As we traded old stories, the conversation turned to be what was a very serious proposal by a well-known city councilmember to convert the entire downtown area into a cemetery. It was good for a hardy laugh. Norm pointed out it would take an endless amount of time and effort to clarify the non-feasibility to the public.
Norm and I had a lot in common personally. We were both San Jose natives. We treasured the wisdom of grateful American immigrant fathers. Farming was a familiar topic to us, and we enjoyed joining together to honor local agricultural achievements in the Santa Clara Valley. We shared bowls of soup in San Jose’s Japantown. To paraphrase the words of author Leo Buscaglia, sharing a bowl of soup was quiet company during which we did not have to climb any mountains.
Dominic Cortese is a former state assemblymember and current Evergreen resident.