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If you like Norman Mineta's story, you might also like:
Willie Brown,
Rudolph Giuliani,
Daniel Inouye,
John Lewis,
Alan Simpson,
Robert Strauss and
Antonio Villaraigosa

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Mineta Institute
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Norman Mineta
Norman Mineta
Profile of Norman Mineta Biography of Norman Mineta Interview with Norman Mineta Norman Mineta Photo Gallery

Norman Mineta Biography

Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation

Norman Mineta Date of birth: November 12, 1931

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  Norman Mineta

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Norman Yoshio Mineta was born and raised in San José, California, where his father, who had immigrated from Japan as a boy, owned and operated a successful insurance company. The elder Mr. Mineta and his family were valued members of the community and young Norman enjoyed the pleasures and pastimes of any other American boy growing up in a prosperous family. This all changed on December 7, 1941, when the country of his father's birth attacked the United States. For many Americans, anger at the unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor quickly turned to suspicion that their Japanese American neighbors might be collaborating in some way with the militarist regime in distant Japan.

On the ostensible grounds of protecting the Japanese Americans from possible mob violence, the federal government and the western states directed that all persons of Japanese ancestry living within a proscribed distance from the Pacific coast be relocated to internment camps in the interior.

Many were forced to sell their homes, businesses and other property at a loss. The Minetas were able to rent their home, although their business was suspended for the duration. The family was relocated, first to a converted race track, then to a permanent camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. There, women, children and the elderly lived in tarpaper shacks in a barbed wire compound patrolled by armed guards, while the young men were drafted into the service of the nation that held their families in captivity.

Norman Mineta Biography Photo
Interned parents sought to preserve some remnant of normal American life for their children. They organized a Boy Scout troop inside the camp and invited neighboring Scout troops to join them. One of the local Scouts who joined the interned Scouts in their activities was the young Alan Simpson, who later became a United States Senator from Wyoming. Simpson and Mineta formed a lifelong friendship, renewed when they served together in Washington.

Despite the patent injustice of their situation, many Japanese Americans served with exceptional bravery, and those who did not serve on the front lines found other ways to serve the adopted country that had treated them so unfairly. Norman Mineta's father volunteered to instruct American army officers in Japanese, and was transported to Chicago to perform this work. Over the boy's objections, the elder Mineta insisted that young Norman study the language as well.

At war's end, the interned Japanese Americans were freed to return to their old lives, but many had lost their businesses and forfeited their property. Some faced the hostility of neighbors who had profited from their dispossession. The Minetas were more fortunate. They had secured legal protection for their real estate, and Mr. Mineta was able to resume his insurance business. Norman Mineta finished high school in San José, and to the surprise of many in the community, was elected Student Body President. Admitted to the University of California, Berkeley, he planned to study aeronautical engineering, but after an unhappy experience with calculus, he changed his major to business. The United States was at war in Korea, and Mineta participated in the Reserve Officers Training Program. After graduation, he served as an intelligence officer with the United States Army in Korea and Japan.

Norman Mineta Biography Photo
On completing his military service, Norman Mineta returned to San José and joined his father in the insurance business. He was active in the Japanese Methodist Church and served on the Santa Clara County Council of Churches. When an opening arose on the city's Human Relations Commission, the Mayor of San José asked Mineta to fill the vacancy. On the Commission, Mineta was instrumental in establishing a municipal Housing Authority to assist tenants displaced by interstate highway construction. After serving on the board of the Housing Authority, Mineta was appointed to a vacant seat on the City Council in 1967, later winning election in his own right. He served on the City Council until 1971, when he was elected Mayor of San José.

As the first American of Asian Pacific ancestry to serve as mayor of a major American city, Mineta's election made national news and caught the eye of his boyhood friend, Alan Simpson, practicing law in Cody, Wyoming. Simpson sent Mineta a congratulatory letter and the two resumed a correspondence that had faltered since their student days. In his three years as Mayor of San José, Mineta fought for local control over transportation decisions. In 1974, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives.

Norman Mineta Biography Photo
Mineta co-founded the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and served as its first chair. For many years he patiently laid the groundwork for redressing the injustice done to Japanese Americans during World War II. In 1978, Congress established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. By 1980, the Commission had issued its report, condemning the government's wartime treatment of Japanese Americans. Mineta proposed legislation authorizing a formal apology and monetary reparations to the former internees. Year after year, Mineta pressed the matter, finally securing passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

As a member of the House's Democratic majority, Mineta moved into leadership positions on the committees of his choice, particularly Public Works and Transportation. He chaired the Aviation Subcommittee from 1981 to 1988, where he worked for increased funding for the Federal Aviation Administration. He was also one of the authors of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA), which gave state and local governments control over highway and mass transit decisions. The effects of ISTEA have been visible in most major American cities, from the appearance of bike paths to the growth of fuel-efficient mass transit.

From 1992 to 1995, Mineta was Chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee. Throughout his ten terms in Congress, Mineta fostered public-private partnerships crucial to the development of the new technologies that came to dominate the economy of his native region. He served his district for 20 years, an era of explosive growth for the area around San José, which became known as Silicon Valley.

Norman Mineta Biography Photo
Mineta returned to the private sector in 1995, becoming a Vice President of Lockheed Martin Corporation. He also served as Chairman of the National Civil Aviation Review Commission, which sought to improve air safety while reducing the congestion in America's airports. The administration of President William J. Clinton adopted a number of the commission's proposals for reforming the FAA. In the last year of his administration, President Clinton asked Norman Mineta to serve as Secretary of Commerce. After his nomination was approved by the United States Senate, Mineta became the first Asian Pacific American to serve in a President's Cabinet.

To his surprise, Mineta was asked to serve as Secretary of Transportation in the incoming Republican administration of President George W. Bush. At first, Mineta was concerned that accepting such an appointment would be seen as an act of disloyalty to his fellow Democrats, but outgoing President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and Democratic leaders in Congress assured him that the call for his expertise in transportation issues transcended partisan considerations. Mineta accepted the appointment, with the proviso that he would not be called on to participate in partisan political activities.

Norman Mineta Biography Photo
As the nation's 14th Secretary of Transportation, Mineta oversaw a department of more than 100,000 employees, with a budget of $60 billion, responsible for millions of miles of public roads and oil and gas pipelines, along with the country's major railroads, airports, ports, public transit systems and inland waterways.

All of Secretary Mineta's expertise in the transportation industry was called upon on September 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked three airliners and crashed them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Northern Virginia. From a secure command center deep under the White House, Mineta directed all flights over United States airspace to land immediately, and secured the cooperation of the Canadian government in diverting incoming international flights to Canada.

In the weeks that followed, Norman Mineta won widespread praise for restoring public confidence in the transportation system. Over the next year, he played the leading role in establishing the Transportation Security Administration, a federal agency responsible for insuring the security of air travel. Utterly committed to upgrading airport security, the Secretary put in 100-hour work weeks to oversee the training of 65,000 luggage inspectors, air marshals and other personnel, and the purchase of millions of dollars worth of new screening equipment, the largest mobilization of a new federal agency since World War II. Significantly, there have been no more airline hijackings since 9/11, and under Secretary Mineta's leadership, America's transportation systems achieved unprecedented levels of safety. In 2002, the city of San José renamed its airport in honor of its favorite son; it is now known as Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport.

Norman Mineta Biography Photo
Later that year, Secretary Mineta underwent back surgery that compelled him to carry out his duties from his hospital bed for five months, but he was soon back to working 18 hours a day at the Department of Transportation. In the summer of 2006, Norman Mineta announced his decision to resign as Secretary of Transportation. His tenure as Secretary was the longest in the Department's history. After experiencing one of the worst examples of government-sanctioned racial discrimination in our country's history, Norman Mineta dedicated the greater part of his working life to the service of his community and his country, a service he carried out with exemplary dignity and integrity. On returning to private life he became Vice Chairman of the Washington-based public relations firm Hill & Knowlton. Today, he and his wife, Danealia (Deni), make their home in Maryland, near the Chesapeake Bay.

This page last revised on Apr 10, 2008 17:12 EDT
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