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Dominic L. Cortese

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Dominic L. Cortese

Dominic L. Cortese (born September 27, 1932) is a former California State Assemblyman who served from 1980 until 1996. For most of his career, Cortese was a moderate Democrat, but in 1995 he gained national attention when he became a member of Ross Perot's Reform Party. He was the highest ranking elected official of the newly formed party at the time. There were international media reports of this event, including the fact that Cortese was being considered by Perot to be his Vice Presidential running mate in the 1996 election.


  • Early life and career 1
  • Assembly career 2
  • Speakership battle 3
  • Education 4
  • Personal 5
  • Election history 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Early life and career

Cortese was born in San Jose, California, one of five children of Rose Carnova, an American of Sicilian descent, and Vincent Cortese, a native of the Sicilian town of Trabia who immigrated to the United States around 1917 and eventually acquired farm land in and near the Santa Clara Valley, growing tomatoes, prunes, cherries, apricots and wheat. As they grew up, he and his siblings worked on the family farms and continued to farm as adults. Though Vincent Cortese never held public office, he was involved in civic affairs in the 1950s and 1960s, visiting property owners outside of San Jose to promote the expansion of the city limits to the north, east, and south.[1]

Cortese served on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors from 1969 until 1980. It was his first election attempt during a period of heavy social unrest, and involved an extremely active campaign which led to his defeat of an entrenched sixteen-year incumbent. Cortese won two subsequent re-elections and during his tenure chaired the Board three times. He also chaired the Local Agency Formation District twice (during which the Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District was authorized), the Santa Clara Valley Transportation District(which he was instrumental in creating as Chair of the Board of Supevisors and co-chair of the campaign to create the district) twice, and the Local Criminal Justice Planning Board created by Governor Ronald Reagan. He served as the Board's representative on the Regional Air Quality Board, the Bay Area Conservation and Development Commission, and ABAG. He was the Board's delegate to the local Economic Opportunity Commission (Federal War on Poverty). When the EOC was under threat of takeover by the Federal government, Cortese along with two other local officials founded the Economic and Social Opportunities Commission (ESO). He was asked to meet with President Jimmy Carter during the 1979 oil crisis after his proposal to support the President's "Windfall Profits" proposal and/or nationalize the oil companies was adopted by his Board and other cities and counties throughout the state. He was a founding member of the California Association of LAFCOS (CALAFCO) and was its President twice. Santa Clara County became only the second county in the state to adopt an ordinance which gave recognized employee groups the right to meet and confer and to negotiate wages and other terms and conditions of employment. He played a key role in the hiring of an Affirmative Action Officer and witnessed the signing of the Santa Clara Plan to phase in minority hiring within definite time constraints. Cortese headed a committee to bring to an end the long fought federal court battle over equality hiring in the Sheriff's office. This effort resulted in a vast recruiting and training program that culminated in the hiring of 60 Chicano deputies, approximately one half the number of vacancies. It was soon recognized that these officers were among the foremost in the department. He maintained close rapport with the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC, later to become Center for Employment Training, CET). It was on his motion, after long debate, that OIC was given the community wide Federal Food Stamp Program.It was through his personal negotiations that the OIC was given a contract to train and place 100 new bus drivers for the newly formed Transportation District. During his first year, Cortese appointed numerous persons of Spanish surname to county wide boards and commissions. From 1969 through 1980, the Board created the Commission on the Status of Women, the Commission on Drug Abuse and Alcoholism, and the Human Relations Commission. During the mid 1970s a new eleven story administration building was constructed. "Dial-A-Ride", a victim of its own success, was commenced in late 1974 and abandoned in early 1975; said to have "too much demand with too few resources". Transportation "outreach" still exists. When the Angela Davis trial was assigned there, the County became the focus of international attention. Santa Clara County was one of the first major public entities to establish a smoking ban in restaurants along with one of the first comprehensive recycling programs in the country. The establishment of a central building permit center received national recognition. The Board asked the electorate to establish an extensive countywide rural parks program which allowed for the acquisition of numerous regional type parks.Two of those purchases,the pristine ten thousand acre Grant Ranch Park and the popular Lake Cuningham Park were in his supervisorial district at the time. In a letter dated October 2, 1975, John B. Dewitt, Secretary and Executive Director of Save-the-Redwoods League wrote to then Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, Dominic L Cortese: "Dear Mr. Cortese, I want to thank you for your effective action to complete the Grant Ranch Park purchase. Future generations will praise your leadership and foresight in making possible this great public park for the people of the South Bay Area. The public will long remember your wise decision to make this park a reality. (Signed) Sincerely, John B. Dewitt" (Santa Clara County Archives: Grant Ranch).The program is still in existence.

Assembly career

Cortese served as the Chairman of the Assembly Committee on Local Government for years. In 1990, he switched to become the chairman of the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks, and Wildlife. He carried the landmark Cortese-Knox Local Government Reorganization Act, which is still called a "best seller" by the State Printing Office and is the guide for all local government annexations, boundaries, formations, detachments and new cities. He was asked to chair the Committee on Water Parks and Wildlife by then Speaker Willie Brown, during the period of California's 7-year drought, to act as a facilitator between rural, urban and residential water users including north vs. south, and spent an extensive amount of time to that end visiting those entities throughout the state. He authored key legislation involving the fisheries, water use and the method whereby the State Parks System would award concessions. The latter was especially the result of hearings he held regarding the scandal at Asilomar State Park in Monterey County. Registration of toxic storage facilities and underground tanks was part of a package that led to a registry called "the Cortese list". During the flooding disaster of 1986, Governor Deukmejian signed an emergency measure by Cortese that provided one hundred fifteen million dollars in flood relief money. The bill reached the Governor's desk within two weeks of being introduced. Another measure created the autonomous Valley Transit Authority in Santa Clara County. A Cortese measure provided several million dollars for a graphics animation center at the University of California, San Diego. The one bill that Cortese speaks of as being his most rewarding is a bill that required insurance companies to cover the cost of mammograms. After at a two-year battle with insurance company opposition, the bill was signed into law and has saved lives. He also carried the Constitutional Amendment that allowed for state education bonds by a fifty percent vote. He carried the bill that guaranteed the vehicle license fee for local governments. As chair of the Local Government committee, Cortese was asked to intervene in the San Bruno Mountain dispute in Millbrae and was recognized by both sides as an "official" mediator. After countless hours of meetings, the dispute which had been ongoing for many years was resolved without legislation and without further litigation. Cortese also carried the legislation that led to the settlement of the Pete's Harbor dispute in nearby Redwood City which had been litigated for fourteen years prior between the venerable Pete Uccelli and the State Lands Commission.

In addition to chairing his own committee, Cortese at one point in his legislative career was asked by the Speaker to serve on eight additional committees. He also chaired a Select Committee on Neighborhood Violence, a Select Committee on Childcare, and a Committee on Wine Production and Economy under which he held numerous hearings around the state and established the groundbreaking rule for reciprocal shipping. The work of that committee was recognized nationally by the National Conference of State Legislatures, and Cortese was asked to chair a counterpart committee on the national level. That committee brought legislators to Sacramento from all over the country and eventually held hearings across the entire country. In March 1993 the wine industry ask him to represent the United States at the international Vinelink General Assembly in Paris where he and his wife were also guest of Moet Hennessy in Champagne. For a number of years, a traditional, very popular, bi-partisan, open membership,Italian Caucus was chaired by Cortese and Senate Pro Tem David Roberti. It was often attended by the Counsel General of Italy. He was the Speaker's appointee to the Seismic Safety Commission and the Little Hoover Commission. Legislation he carried for the Seismic Safety Commission included a long overdue update of the Uniform Building Code. Cortese carried a resolution creating the California Italian American Task Force, the membership of which was appointed by Governor Pete Wilson and included outstanding members of the Italian American community throughout the state. Inquiries were received from all over the country.

During his legislative career Cortese was recognized as "Legislator of the Year" by a broad spectrum of statewide organizations. He received numerous awards and certificates of appreciation from local service clubs and community organizations. He participated as featured speaker at numerous statewide conferences including: The California Association of LAFCOS, California Supervisors Association, California Contract Cities Association,California State Chamber of Commerce, the Bay Area Council, California Special Districts Association, Association of California Water Agencies,California Realtors Association,Los Angeles County Employees Association and the League of California Cities. In 1984,he was a delegate on the California Sister State Task Force that established the first Sister State relaltionship with the Republic of Taiwan. He has been honored with the Ordine al Merito, Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy,the highest ranking honor and most senior order of the Republic, Cavaliere Ufficiale, Knight of the Republic.

Speakership battle

Cortese was one of the Democrats that Republicans hoped to win over when they were struggling to gain the speakership in 1995. Brown had Assemblyman Dick Mountjoy expelled, so the Republicans had only 40 votes when they needed 41. Without Paul Horcher and Cortese, the Democrats had only 39 votes and one vacancy. Horcher, scorned by the Republicans in his earlier election, became an Independent and voted for Brown on the first roll call. Cortese abstained, but cast the single deciding vote on the second roll call with his wife sitting next to him at his desk. Cortese met privately with Jim Brulte, Brown's Republican adversary, and later with Brown and Horcher upon entering the Assembly chambers earlier that day.


Cortese received of Bachelors of Science degree from Santa Clara University. He graduated from Pala Middle School in San Jose and Bellarmine College Preparatory High School in 1950. He holds an Honorary Law Degree from Lincoln Law School. A college ROTC graduate, Cortese served for two years in the United States Army as a First Lieutenant. He is a Rotary Club Paul Harris Fellow.


Cortese is a Roman Catholic. He is married to Suzanne and has five adult children and nine grandchildren. One of his sons, David, was elected to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in 2008. Cortese was recognized as an Honorary Citizen at a citywide town hall meeting in his father's hometown of Trabia, Italy. The record of the event was read and recorded into the Daily Journal during legislative proceedings in Sacramento. Although the family transitioned into development under obvious pressures of growth, they farmed and operated family fruit stand in the Evergreen area of San Jose until very recently. As benefactors, Dominic and Suzanne Cortese are members of the Legacy Society of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and of the Felice Foundation, created by Dr. Leo Buscaglia. Cortese is an Honorary Member of the Civic Club of San Jose.

Election history

  • Elected to Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors 1968; re-elected in 1972,1976
  • Elected to the California State Legislature in 1980, Re-elected 1982, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994
  • Reform Party Candidate 13th State Senate District 1996.
  • Elected to Alum Rock School Board (his elementary school) in 1998 to four-year term. He chaired the Board twice.


  1. ^ Lundstrom, Mack (March 15, 1994). "V. Cortese, 96, San Jose Farmer: Sicilian Immigrant Loved Life as a Man of the Earth". San Jose Mercury News. p. 7B. 

External links

  • Cortese Papers, Online Archives-State of CA
  • Official Dominic L. Cortese Facebook Page
  • Assembly Resolution Honoring Dominic Cortese
Political offices
Preceded by
Leona H. Egeland
California State Assemblyman, 24th District
Succeeded by
Chuck Quackenbush
Preceded by
John Vasconcellos
California State Assemblyman, 23rd District
Succeeded by
Mike Honda
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