Bob Nuñez sounds like he’s enjoying himself.
I have no idea where he is. We’re on the phone. But I hear the sound of cars going by. Almost like he’s taking a walk somewhere — or standing beside an active roadway. “I always have things going,” he says, his smile audible over the phone.
But I don’t get around to asking him about the present. Instead, we focus on discussing the past and future…
During his 4 years as a Milpitas City Councilmember, recently concluded, Bob Nuñez gained great pride from various accomplishments, among them helping to raise the minimum wage, enhancing the Planning Department, and transforming the Economic Development Department into “more than something that was just public relations” which actually helps to bring corporations and companies in as “economic engines” of Milpitas.
Any achievement, Nuñez underlines, that involved “Doing things for the working families of Milpitas” was at the top of his list.
Nowadays, Council or no Council, the work continues. “I’m active in 4 or 5 counties,” he says. I say I thought he was retired. That just makes him laugh.
Indeed, Bob Nuñez, who was Vice Mayor of Milpitas when his term concluded, presently serves as Vice President of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP, Co-Chair of La Raza Roundtable, and a mentor at the California Association of Latino Superintendents & Administrators, training Latino parents to be advocates for their children, and thus better advocates for themselves. Chief among his priorities is foster youth, a population group he attends to actively through his own Nuñez Community Foundation.
Nuñez was born and raised in Orange County. In his very early 30s, in Coachella Valley, he had an unforgettable encounter with Cesar Chavez. At the time, Nuñez was in charge of early education and migrant education. The setting was wide open farmland, among some 200 people: students, farmworkers, children.
Bob Nuñez was the only individual on hand wearing a suit.
“Sit down,” Cesar Chavez said, patting the land beside him.
“So,” Nuñez says now, “I sat down and listened to him.”
Suit or no suit, Nuñez felt well within his element. After all, he’d grown up picking strawberries.
“We spent altogether maybe 15 minutes,” says Nuñez. During that time, Chavez said to him, “These parents trust you…And they don’t even know you. So if they trust you, I’m trusting you.”
The sentiment hit Nuñez like a bolt of lightning: “It struck me right then that I couldn’t be the guy walking around in suits and ties and thinking, ‘God I made it.’ ‘Cause if I didn’t help those around me, then what was it for?”
Later, in his Northern California years, the NAACP’s President, Pastor Jethroe Moore, would have a similarly profound effect on Nuñez. Moore would say to him, “Bob, I want you to go here; I want you to come here with me…”
Meanwhile, though, Bob would be asking, “Wait, what do I do?”
Moore’s response was illuminating: “Do whatever you think you should be doing.”
Victor Garza, Chair of La Raza Roundtable, was another critical figure when it came to lighting Nuñez’s path: “Those two men, I think, made me realize that I could do more than just stand around being a good bureaucrat.”
As such: “I’ve devoted the last 15 years to social justice — in my own way.”
“In my own way” seemed, to my ear, to evoke Nuñez’s party affiliation: “I’m a Lincoln Republican,” he explains. “In Orange County, everybody was Republican. So as I was growing up, I became Republican.”
He recalls a gentleman from his more formative years, a school superintendent who shaped the way he carried — and still carries — himself: “He was actually the person who bought me my first suit, shirt, tie, shoes.”
One day, the man looked at Nuñez and said to him, “You can be the guy on the outside that keeps throwing rocks, that nobody’s gonna pay attention to — or somebody on the inside. You pick.”
So, says Nuñez now, “I picked being on the inside.”
He then went on to learn the mechanics of attempting to make change from the inside of a given system, as a young Republican. The person in charge of the local Republican Party at the time said to him, “Bob, let’s see what we can do…,” and tried to position Nuñez in the game.
Still, to this day, Nuñez laughs and insists, “I’m not a politician. I’m a bureaucrat.”
Nonetheless, he says something I expect few bureaucrats would: “You’re gonna take a beating. Being a Latino Republican…You’ve got to prove yourself.”
For example, when Nuñez’s fellow Republicans said to him, “Bob, you’re not far enough to the right,” Nuñez would simply smile and say, “Or you’re too far. Your call.”
Is he out of the game now? Time will tell. If, 6 to 12 months from now, he sees things going fine on the Milpitas City Council, then he intends to keep his distance. On the other hand: “If things aren’t going right, I have time.” Again, I hear the smile.
Either way, Bob Nuñez is quick to sound a note of gratitude: “I’m thankful for the 4 years up there…I never started out my life thinking I was gonna be involved in elected politics. So I’m thankful. I got a lot of stuff done that I wanted done, but…this [new] group has earned the right to get things done.”
Before I let Nuñez go, I bring up this past Tuesday night, when one by one his former fellow councilmembers wished him warm and often emotional farewells. Recalling the moment, Nuñez takes a lengthy pause, and I wonder if he’s getting emotional again. Coming out of the pause, though, he sounds composed. His words, though simple, are charged with humility: “I’m not sure I would have ever guessed that’s what they would have said, in 100 years.”
I let him go. But not for good. Because in life, there are some big goodbyes, but most goodbyes turn out to be only temporary.
It’s still daylight out. I wonder where the guy was the whole time: the traffic in the background, the wind in the phone.
In any case, Bob Nuñez goes on his way.