Twenty years have passed since former Rep. James C. Corman served the east San Fernando Valley, but he hasn't been forgotten here. Neither will he be with his death late last month in Arlington, Va., following a stroke at age 80.
Corman represented the Valley from 1961 to 1981. A courtly man in a tumultuous time, he treated his constituents and congressional colleagues alike with old-fashioned graciousness. But he was steely in his dedication to civil rights and to the poor. He once told a critic who derided welfare recipients as lazy, "I don't think there is anything uplifting about hunger. I really think you need the physical fiber to support the moral fiber."
As a member of the prestigious House Judiciary Committee, Corman was instrumental in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which he considered the greatest accomplishment of his life.
He was one of 10 people named by President Lyndon B. Johnson to the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, or the Kerner Commission, to investigate the urban riots of 1967. When the commission concluded that the nation was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal," Corman refused to give in to pessimism. He just resolved to work harder to make it not so.
For all his contributions to the nation and for all his integrity, intelligence and diligence as a legislator, Corman is likely best remembered here for the election that ended his congressional career. In 1980 he lost--by 752 votes--to conservative Republican Bobbi Fiedler. One of the narrowest congressional races in state history, it was evoked most recently by the cliffhanger presidential election.
The longtime congressman's loss was attributed in part to then-President Jimmy Carter's landslide defeat and concession to Ronald Reagan before California polls closed.
But Corman's civil rights record--and the vicious fight then taking place over mandatory school busing--also played a role. Fiedler, a leader of the Valley's heated antibusing forces, made busing the paramount issue in a bitter campaign. Corman backed busing as a temporary, last-resort measure to achieve integration. He refused to soften his stand. In typical fashion, he also refused to say anything negative about Fiedler, even in defeat.
His hard work, graciousness and principled dedication to civil rights and a social safety net still represent the Valley at its best.