Mineta, Norman Yoshio

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Norman Yoshio Mineta

American politician Norman Mineta (born 1931), the first Asian American cabinet member, has served under both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Mineta, an American of Japanese descent, was forced into an internment camp during World War II. As a member of Congress during the 1990s, he lobbied for the United States government to issue an official apology and financial reparations to families such as his. As transportation secretary in the administration of George W. Bush, Mineta oversaw an agency of 100,000 employees and a $60 million budget, amid heightened security concerns in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Early Years

Mineta was born in San Jose, California on November 12, 1931. His father, Kunisaku Mineta, had arrived by boat from Kumaiden, Japan in 1902, at age 14, and stayed in the United States, veering from his original plan of learning new farming skills and returning to his homeland. Mineta's mother, Kane, arrived 10 years later. The Oriental Exclusion Law of 1924, however, had prohibited either parent from becoming U.S. citizens. By then, Mineta's father had founded the Mineta Insurance Agency in San Jose. The Minetas raised five children in a Spanish–style stucco house.

On December 7, 1941, about a month after Norman Mineta's 10th birthday, Japan attacked the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii, plunging the United States into World War II. Shortly into 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order proclaiming that all people of Japanese ancestry could be moved from the West Coast because of "military necessity." Years later, Mineta told People Weekly, "Our next–door neighbor was director of a Japanese–American social group, and that day he was arrested by the FBI. I remember his daughter crawling under the hedge and running over to our house, screaming that the police were taking her father away. She wouldn't hear from him again for several months. In the weeks that followed there was a lot of fear and uncertainty in the community."

The Minetas themselves did not remain unscathed. The Mineta insurance agency was shuttered, the family's savings accounts confiscated and never returned, and the family even had to give away its dog to a stranger because they were told that they had to move to an internment camp. "We were told that we could take to the camp only what we could carry," People Weekly quoted Mineta. "People would just come and knock on your door and say, 'I'll give you five bucks for your refrigerator.' They would just walk the streets, going in and out of Japanese homes, offering to buy stuff. Very quickly our house was leased to a professor at San Jose State College."

That May, officials relocated the Minetas south to Santa Anita, California—Mineta boarded the train clad in his Cub Scout uniform. At Santa Anita, they lived at the racetrack paddocks for three months before they were sent to their permanent assignment, Heart Mountain, Wyoming. "We were greeted by a blinding sandstorm when we arrived. I remember the sand whipping up into the barracks through the cracks in the floorboards," Mineta recalled, according to People Weekly. "It was cold, bitterly cold, and since we were all from California, most people had to make do with light jackets and blankets. Of course, we couldn't go shopping. There were 12,000 people in the camp living in crowded barracks. We had an 18–foot by 25–foot space with a potbellied stove, and we ate in a large mess hall. Everyone knew that Wyoming would be it for the duration of our internment, so we had no choice but to try to feel at home."

In 1943, the Minetas were allowed, one by one, to leave the camp. Kunisaku Mineta took a job in Chicago teaching Japanese to U.S. Army soldiers. Mineta and his mother left that November. "We just got on a bus outside Heart Mountain, then stayed overnight in Butte, Montana, before catching a train to meet my father," People Weekly quoted Mineta. "We had dinner that night in a restaurant across the street from the hotel. After my mother and I ate, I stood up and began stacking the dishes the way I always did. In the camp mess hall we always had to bus our own tables. My mother watched me for a moment and then said very softly, 'Norman, you don't have to do that anymore.' At that moment, for the first time, it hit me that I was free."

The Minetas returned to San Jose to piece together their postwar lives. Mineta attended San Jose High School and the University of California, Berkeley, obtaining a bachelor's degree in business in 1953. He enrolled in the Army and was an intelligence officer while stationed in Korea and Japan. In 1956, Mineta, after his military discharge, worked for his father, who by then had reopened his insurance agency.

Signature Legislation

Mineta began his political career on the San Jose city council in 1967, filling a vacancy and becoming the city's first minority council member. In 1971, he became the first Asian American mayor of a major U.S. city. While mayor, he pushed for more local input on transportation decisions, as he did in the U.S. House of Representatives where he was the prime author of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991. After three years as mayor, Mineta was elected as a Democrat to Congress from northern California's Silicon Valley region, which he served from 1975 to 1995. His agendas included public–private partnerships, consensus building, and major projects in transportation, economic development, and science and technology. He co–founded the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. He chaired the House Public Works and Transportation Committee and sought more money for transportation infrastructure. ISTEA contributed to greater mass transit ridership and transit projects that were more environmentally compatible.

Although Mineta achieved many acts of congress, the redress bill was his signature accomplishment. Filed with another California Democrat of Japanese American origin, Robert T. Matsui of Sacramento, H.R. 442 became the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. It earmarked $20,000 to Japanese American families sent to internment camps—about $1.2 billion overall. Included was an official apology from the U.S. government. Mineta tearfully recounted his own internment experiences on the floor of Congress. "Now, more than 40 years later, Congress has the opportunity to close the books on one of the most shameful events in our history," Mineta said while introducing the bill in 1985, according to text available from the Congressional Record. "Those interned were not foreign spies carrying briefcases with secrets. . . . Most of those interned were born in this country and were proud citizens from birth." Mineta, at the outbreak of the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, pleaded with federal officials not to similarly target Arab Americans. For his efforts, Mineta received the Martin Luther King, Jr., Commemorative Medal from George Washington University in 1995.

The reparations bill passed despite some objections. According to Karen Tumulty of the Los Angeles Times, Representative Daniel E. Lungren, a Republican from California, criticized the "misguided notion that the dollar sign is the only genuine symbol of contrition," and Representative Bill Frenzel, a Republican from Minnesota, called it an attempt to "purge ourselves of somebody else's guilt with another generation's money." Among others, Representative Norman D. Shumway, a Republican from Stockton, worried about setting a dangerous precedent, saying the government might then have to compensate black children for school segregation or convicts denied Miranda rights.

After serving as a vice president at Lockheed Martin Corporation, an aerospace company and defense contractor, Mineta was named by President Clinton as commerce secretary in June of 2000, when William Daley resigned to coordinate Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign. Mineta, who himself had informally advised the Gore campaign, held the commerce position for the last six months of Clinton's administration. "Norm Mineta's family story tells a lot about the promise of the American dream and the power of one person's devotion to opportunity and to justice," Clinton said, according to the Knight Ridder News Service. The President cited not only Mineta's high–tech background, but his "deep concern . . . for the people in places who are not yet fully participating in this economy." Lockheed Martin's troubles in the 1990s did not hinder Mineta's confirmation. Lockheed paid a $13 million fine for illegally helping the Chinese government fix a satellite motor, but a company representative said the incident occurred before Mineta joined the company. After leaving Congress, Mineta also chaired the National Civil Aviation Review Commission, which in 1997 issued a report on how to reduce air traffic congestion and minimize the risk of aircraft accidents. The Clinton administration adopted several recommendations as part of its reform of the Federal Aviation Administration.

In January of 2001, a few days after George W. Bush was sworn in, the new president named Mineta secretary of transportation. "[Mineta] made a reputation in the halls of Congress as someone who understands that a sound infrastructure in America will lead to economic opportunity for all Americans," Bush said, according to a statement issued by the Department of Transportation. In the same statement, Mineta called transportation "key to both our economic success and to our quality of life."

Terrorists Attacked Trade Center

Security became paramount to Mineta's watch in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon building outside Washington, D.C. He met regularly with Bush and made critical decisions regarding airport security. Mineta oversaw the Coast Guard's response to the terrorist attacks and the creation of the Transportation Security Administration before the transfer of authority over both organizations was moved to the newly established Department of Homeland Security.

Other concerns Mineta faced in early 2005 included the future of the troubled airline industry and of rail carrier Amtrak. In mid–December of 2004, Mineta unveiled the Next Generation Air Transportation System plan, a collaboration of six federal agencies in what Mineta called "a blueprint that will lead to the transformation of America's air transportation network," according to Maria Recio of the Knight Ridder News Service. Citing the need to adjust for the new millennium, Recio quoted Mineta as having said, "It won't be long before the nation's airspace will be filled with more aircraft of all kinds—like air taxi services, new commercial jetliners, on–demand micro jets, and commercial space vehicles. . . . Today, reusable spacecraft are being tested in the California desert, and very light jets are starting to capture our interest and imagination."

Though praised as an ethnic pioneer among Japanese Americans, Mineta actually found himself surrounded by a diverse group of Cabinet advisers as he agreed to continue as transportation secretary for a second Bush administration. "Some political analysts argue that Bush's appointments and his matter–of–fact approach to them signal a new stage in the racial history of the nation, one in which diversity in the top ranks is taken as a matter of course," Susan Page wrote in USA Today. "Bush and Clinton, who don't agree on much, together may have set a new standard that future presidents in both parties will be expected to meet."

Mineta's Legacy

Mineta drew on his traumatic internment–camp experience to write historic legislation that helped right some wrongs of nearly 40 years earlier. "Some say the internment was for our own protection," he said, according to the Congressional Record. "But even as a boy of 10, I could see that the machine guns and the barbed wire faced inward. . . . Yes, it was a time of great national stress. But moral principles and rules of law are easy to uphold in placid times. But do these principles stand up in times of great difficulty and stress? . . . Sadly, we as a nation failed that test in 1942." Mineta's latest challenge as transportation secretary in the post–September 11th era is to balance security, government, business, and consumer needs. Mineta and his wife, Danealia (Deni), have two sons, David and Stuart Mineta, and two stepsons, Robert and Mark Brantner.


Notable Asian Americans, Gale Research, 1995.


Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, June 29, 2000.

Los Angeles Times, September 18, 1987.

New York Times, June 30, 2000.

People Weekly, December 14, 1987.

USA Today, December 10, 2004.


"Norman Y. Mineta," Mineta Transportation Institute,http://transweb.sjsu.edu/nmlinks.htm (December 15, 2004).

"Norman Y. Mineta," U.S. Department of Transportation,http://www.dot.gov/affairs/mineta.htm (December 15, 2004).

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