Features & Columns
Gift of Gab
Liccardo had a big mouth as a kid, which is not uncommon for the baby in many families—or future attorneys. The youngest of five siblings, Liccardo inherited the gift of gab from his father, Sal—a personal injury attorney—and then went about putting it to good use at parochial school.
Skipping kindergarten and immediately enterryng school as a first grader, Liccardo was younger and smaller than his classmates until a growth spurt in high school. Speaking up was his only way to gain stature, but he says it usually resulted in him getting pummeled or spending hours in detention with other talkative prepsters at Bellarmine.
"I think Bellarmine gets a bad rap for being an elitist institution," Liccardo says. When that argument fails to gain traction, he relents. "There's a bit of a Bellarmine mafia in San Jose, and whatever reputation it has, it's probably well deserved."
Liccardo went from Bellarmine to Georgetown to Harvard—he received a law degree and a master's in public policy—and then to the U.S Attorney's Office in San Diego, where he became the youngest prosecutor on staff.
"It made it possible to avoid working for a law firm," he says in a nod to his father, whose office is located in the wealthy enclave of Saratoga. When Liccardo moved back from San Diego to prosecute sexual assaults and child-abuse cases for the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office, he settled in rent-free into his grandfather's North San Jose home.
In his only true election, back in 2006, Liccardo beat out labor-endorsed former State Assemblyman Manny Diaz. In 2010, Liccardo ran unopposed, cloaking any allegiances as he raised a total of $62.
Once a week, Liccardo crosses Santa Clara Street from City Hall and walks to Horace Mann Elementary School, where he tutors a fourth-grader named Omar for 45 minutes. (Liccardo also teaches a political science class at San Jose State University.)
Shy, yet wearing his hair in a fauxhawk, Omar reads at a second-grade level, which why he is enrolled in the "1,000 Hearts for 1,000 Minds" program Liccardo helped create with council colleagues.
"This school was opened back around World War II," Liccardo says as we walk into the core of the school campus. "That's why it looks like an old army barracks. But that's probably a good thing with some of the stuff that happens around here." A few feet from the school's parking lot entrance, a filthy sleeping bag was left stained and sprawled on the sidewalk.
The downtown vista isn't always pretty, but it has shaped policymakers who tune in to San Jose's hardscrabble realities.
"Any downtown councilmember is always viewed as mayoral timber," says Dean Munro, who served as chief of staff for McEnery in addition to working on the staffs of Reed and former mayor and U.S. congressman Norm Mineta. "McEnery, David Pandori, [Susan] Hammer, Chavez—not all were successful, but all of them were serious candidates, because of who they represented and the visibility."
Crops to Caucuses
To say that Cortese had it all from day one would be a stretch, mainly because an heir has to work diligently to keep an asset-rich legacy producing when passed down among generations. The Corteses have a deep heritage in the Evergreen area, starting with Cortese's grandfather, Vincent, who like many Italian immigrants made his wealth from sprawling farms and orchards.
Cortese and his siblings spent nearly every summer day picking fruit during harvest time, he says. "We didn't go on summer vacations. We went to school and went to work, seven days a week."
When they weren't working in the orchards, the Cortese kids were supporting dad's public service, which familiarized Cortese at a young age to the political chops and public-safety friendships that nurture a political career. (Firefighters have always been his political bread and butter.)
When his grandfather retired in the mid-'80s, Cortese returned to the family business, handling finances (his focus at UC Davis).
The family was considering converting one of its 18 acres of apricot orchards into an apartment complex, in accordance with the city's general plan, Cortese says. He was the most qualified Cortese—not holding political office—for the job. Under Cortese's direction, the family's business portfolio expanded to a shopping mall and apartment complexes.
"There were half a dozen different business entities that I ran for the better part of 15 years," Cortese says.
Following in his father's footsteps after graduating from Bellarmine in 1974, Cortese attended college and later earned his Juris Doctorate from Lincoln Law School in San Jose. He practiced law in a variety of fields before immersing himself in civic affairs, joining groups such as the San Jose Rotary Club and other nonprofit boards. Realizing he had found his niche, in 1992 he successfully ran for his first political office to become an East Side Union High School District board member.
There are career politicians, and then there are people who are born politicians. With 20 years of experience, Cortese now falls into both groups.
Without ever receiving unsolicited advice, Cortese says, he learned from his father's career, and at times his missteps. In 1992, Dom was so excited to show a Metro reporter his passion for working at the Capitol that he conducted an impromptu faux meeting on the assembly floor, racing frantically around the empty room, acting out the roles of absent colleagues.
"Dom was part of the wimp caucus back in those days—basically progressive guys who didn't have a lot of juice," says Rich Robinson, a Silicon Valley political consultant of three decades. "He wasn't a guy who could move legislation or move the agenda. He couldn't raise any money. He wasn't a player in Sacramento. He was a good vote for Democrats, but a couple times when they had to take out districts for reapportionment, he was the last guy on the totem pole."
Watching the way party leaders dropped his father from commissions or consistently toyed with his district lines likely shaped Cortese's political outlook, and his suspicious nature, which showed itself in the tentative way he approached agreeing to an interview.
"The son is more calculating, I guess, is the best way to put it," Robinson says. "Because he's calculating, he sometimes comes off as unprincipled or less than sincere."
In December, Cortese made an appearance outside of City Hall with labor leaders who denounced Mayor Reed's pension-reform plan as an attack on city workers. Most observers took Cortese's presence as a sign that the businessman from a land-owning family had swung completely to labor's side, but Cortese says he never echoed or endorsed union complaints.
"I told the labor leaders to get back to the bargaining table, that's what I told them out there," he says. "I didn't get into right or wrong. I told them they need to get back to the table. I still believe that. I don't think you ever stop negotiations when you have a festerryng problem."
Though there will be plenty of campaign dollars associated with any endorsement, Cortese sounds like he doesn't want to enter the race as a cheerleader for only one team. For now, Cortese sounds like a man who wants to take two dates to the dance.
"Cortese will be backed by labor, but I think that's a tricky thing," Munro says. "Being identified by labor, at best, is a mixed blessing. They may be putting seven figures into a race, but the political wind is surely opposed to what labor stands for."
The Big Stick
No one at San Jose's City Hall appears to be particularly happy right now. Employee morale has sunk as union-orchestrated complaints and lawsuits are underway against Mayor Reed, whose tactical approach in the last two years has been the stick, not the carrot.
"I think the mayor has to lead," Reed says matter-of-factly as a grandfather clock chimes in his 18th floor office. "The mayor has to represent all the people, and sometimes you have to say no to your friends and your supporters. And Cortese has always been more interested in sort of mediating things. Not that there's anything wrong with mediation, but I don't think the mayor can be a mediator. There are times when you can possibly mediate something, but ultimately the mayor has to be a leader. And if you're mediating, you're not leading."
Liccardo hasn't exactly established himself as a brave and fearless leader on unpopular issues either. Until he independently raised the topic last year of mismanaged business incubators and what looked like a cover-up of $32 million wasted by the San Jose Redevelopment Agency, he's pretty much subscribed to the conventional wisdom on downtown. Liccardo admits that he didn't challenge RDA project costs as much as he should have in his first term on the council. Even Liccardo's partner, Garcia-Kohl, says she questioned his tenacity when the pair first met.
"I think what struck me first about Liccardo is he seemed to have a real long-term vision," she says. "He wasn't interested in quick fixes and sexy solutions. But I remember going up to him after a meeting and saying, 'I just don't think you have the skin for this kind of game.'
"Little did I know about the DA in him; that is the one exception. As he's been in it, he's allowed his skin to get a lot thicker."
Loosely mentored by McEnery and others, such as Downtown Association president Scott Knies, who pushed Liccardo to enter politics, the former prosecutor could have his eyes on positions other than mayor of San Jose. At 64, Zoe Lofgren (D–San Jose) is on the young fringe of the Bay Area's delegation in Washington.
"Liccardo has always been a name thrown around, but I've also heard the little rumors of 'Would you rather be a mayor of this city, with all we're going through, or would you rather go after Zoe's seat?" says first-term San Jose Councilmember Don Rocha. "With no kids, he could be interested in going to Washington."
That might not be case for too much longer. A little more than five years have passed since Liccardo and Jessica hooked up, and Liccardo says he's asked when the two are getting married "about every three hours."
"It's about time," he admits. "We're not getting any younger, and I want to have kids and raise a family."
Meanwhile, Cortese and his wife, Pattie, already have four children and no plans to leave the area. Cortese's base is here, and he clearly believes he has the kind of deep alliances with business and labor that could make him a formidable contender in any race. And he could be helped by the fact that he has no need to align himself with a mayor whose approval with city workers could wither under attack between now and 2014.
"I think labor people trust me, and I think a lot of business people trust me. Trust is the important thing in politics," Cortese says. "I think the labor unions, whether it's the California Teachers Association or city labor unions, when I say something, when I tell them we don't have any money, they trust that. Some people, when they say that, they don't trust them. And that makes a big difference."
In two years' time, it's possible labor could resurge in public opinion, or a new candidate not yet on the scene could cut into Liccardo and Cortese's support. But one aspect that won't change is the expectations that come with being the face of a city.
"Everything in public service is going to be more difficult than it used to be. People's expectations continue to rise," says former Mayor Gonzales. "Anyone who is attracted to public service thinking it's a holiday is not living in this world."