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Behind a Santa Clara County board member is … a grandfather from Italy

By Valentina Nesci | 13 Nov 2010

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Supervisor Dave Cortese reassures the Santa Clara community that the Board of Supervisors will do all they can to opt out of S-Comm. (Photo: Valentina Nesci)

Unlike 45 percent of Santa Clara County’s residents, Dave Cortese does not speak a foreign language at home. But when he hears people conversing in Vietnamese, Spanish or another language besides English, he fondly remembers his grandfather Vincent, an Italian immigrant.

“Some Americans don’t appreciate different cultures,” said Cortese, the vice president of the county Board of Supervisors. “They hear two people speaking another language outside a supermarket and they think: they are not Americans.”

When they speak in their native language, immigrants “are not trying to be subversive,” Cortese said, adding, “Because of my grandfather, I think it has been easier for me to understand and empathize with their culture and their desire to maintain their heritage.”

Cortese was born and raised in San Jose’s Evergreen neighborhood, so he has never felt like an outsider in the county. His understanding came from listening to his grandfather, who spoke in a thick, melodic Sicilian dialect. Vincent Cortese journeyed to California from Sicily during World War I with almost no money and labored in the fruit and vegetable fields of the Santa Clara valley. From those humble beginnings, Vincent eventually made enough money to buy land and establish himself as a successful agricultural businessman.

“The immigration from Italy continued, and [Vincent] had some level of success, so hundreds and hundreds of the Italians were instructed to see him as soon as they got here,” Dave Cortese recalled, his voice softening.

Cortese’s other role model was his father, Dominic, who served on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors from 1968 to 1980, before becoming a California Assemblyman until 1996. Cortese remembers that his father used to be on the phone for hours helping undocumented workers gain citizenship or advising them on how to get a visa.

While Cortese is proud of being the son of a politician, he noted that, as a boy, he had to persuade his father to go into politics, not the other way around: “I was 4 years old, and I was already encouraging him to become a politician.”

Dave Cortese’s interest in politics began early, but he followed his grandfather’s wishes that he go into the family business. After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Davis, he became the manager of several Cortese family-owned farms and real estate ventures. Then in 1992 he was elected as a trustee of the East Side Union High School District in San Jose, serving two terms and becoming board president. Michelle Pelayo Osorio, a policy aide who has known Cortese for six years, said he fought to reduce truancy and promote after-school programs while on the school board. “Parents … didn’t just want him at a school level,” she said. “They wanted him higher, where he could make more changes.”

Eight years on the San Jose City Council prepared Cortese to run and win a seat on the county Board of Supervisors in 2008 – in part because of support from the county’s immigrant communities. As vice mayor of San Jose, a position he held from 2006 to 2008, he advocated for a policy that prohibited the city from cooperating with federal Immigration raids.

“Dave has been a strong figure in advocating (for) comprehensive immigration reform when he was a city council member … now as a county supervisor,” said Cesar Juarez, a director of SIREN, the San Jose-based Immigrant Rights & Education Network.

On the Board of Supervisors, Cortese played a role in the county’s recent efforts to opt out of Secure Communities, or S-Comm, a controversial federal program that requires local police to fingerprint anyone they arrest and provide the information to immigration authorities. (The Department of Homeland Security has said local jurisdictions cannot opt out of the program.)

But a multicultural festival called Day on the Bay is perhaps the initiative that best exemplifies his appreciation of diversity, according to friend Lisa Bickford, who met Cortese on a bus trip to Sacramento to lobby for more state funding of education.

The festival, which took place on Oct. 16, saw people from many cultural backgrounds gather in San Jose’s recently opened Alviso Park to enjoy outdoor activities such as kayaking and to sample foods from across the globe. Cortese’s blue eyes brightened as he addressed the crowd, marveling at the “beautiful tapestry of people.” He thought of his grandfather, Vincent.

“I believe it is very important to bring down the barriers between people,” he said in an interview. “Sometimes all you need to do is to get people to gather together in a community and to learn how to appreciate each other’s differences.”

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