Norman Yoshio Mineta, who survived internment during World War II, rose to be San Jose’s mayor and Congressman and served as U.S. Secretary of Transportation during 9/11, died Tuesday at age 90 of heart failure at his home in Maryland.
Mineta built a nationwide reputation over a long political career, as a Democrat who served in the cabinet of a Republican president and as the man who was instrumental in the creation of the Transportation Security Agency. But his story began in San Jose, which named Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport in his honor in 2001.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, who got his start in public service working as an intern in Mineta’s Congressional office in Washington, D.C., when he was 18, said he was saddened by the news.
“San Jose has lost a great champion, and I have lost a deeply admired mentor,” Liccardo said. “Like so many of those fortunate to have worked with Norm, I learned enormously from his calm leadership style, his deadpan humor, and his sincere love for public service.”
Mineta’s early years as the son of Japanese-American immigrants uprooted from mild San Jose to the extremes of Heart Mountain, Wyo., during World War II remained an influence on his life.
“A lot of what I am today is really that 10-plus-year-old kid who got on that train on the 29th of May 1942,” Mineta said in a 1995 interview. “I had my baseball glove and my baseball and my baseball cap, and as I’m getting on the train the MPs confiscate my bat on the basis it could be used as a lethal weapon.”
Ironically, it was at Heart Mountain where Mineta became fast friends with future Sen. Alan Simpson, then a Boy Scout in nearby Cody whose troop went on campouts with Mineta’s troop from the internment camp.
After the war, Mineta graduated from San Jose High School and then from the University of California-Berkeley — as a Republican, his older sister, Helen, said before her death in 1996. With a two-year Army hitch as a ROTC lieutenant behind him in 1956, Norm Mineta returned to San Jose to work at the insurance agency operated by his father, Kay Mineta, and become involved in local politics — as a Democrat.
In 1967, Mineta, 35, became the first person of color to serve on the San Jose City Council in its 117-year history. “I feel a great deal of responsibility to other Japanese-Americans,” he said, “but I didn’t advance race as a reason for being appointed.”
If race was a factor when Mineta ran for mayor in 1971, it was not negative. With 32 others in the contest, Mineta captured 62 percent of the vote for outright election in the primary, becoming the first Asian American to lead a major city in the United States.
His tenure gave a glimpse of his future as a mass transit advocate. He pushed unsuccessfully to persuade Santa Clara County voters to join the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, decades before BART finally found its way to San Jose. “Every time we widen a road,” he said, “all we do is add three cars — we’re moving cars, not people.”
Mineta had planned to run for re-election in 1974 but changed his mind when 11-term Republican Congressman Charles Gubser decided to retire. Mineta won the seat and held it for 20 years, serving on committees regulating highways and airlines and rising in prominence as chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee.
“He was such a consequential guy in so many ways and arenas, including his days in San Jose,” said Les Francis, who served as his chief of staff in Congress. Mineta could work across the aisle, Francis said, working with Republican Sen. Bob Dole as co-sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act and becoming one of the first members of the House to publicly support same-sex marriage.
He also took care of his district, with federal funds for such creations and add-ons to Highway 237, the Guadalupe Parkway, San Jose International Airport, Santa Clara County’s light-rail system, the San Jose-Santa Clara Water Pollution Control Plant and the Guadalupe River Park.
But his congressional career may be best remembered for carrying the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided an apology and reparations to Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps during World War II.
U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who served with Mineta in Congress in 1995, called him “an amazing individual” who never forgot a name, an important skill in politics. “He was focused and tenacious about getting things done — if you don’t get it done the first time you just keep going at it,” she said. “That kind of persistence and focus not only served him well but it served his constituents well, and they appreciated it.”
In the 1980s, Mineta survived surgery for lung cancer, and he his wife of 27 years, the former May Hinoki, divorced. In 1991, he married Danealia Brantner, a United Airlines flight attendant and seemed set to solidify his position of legislative power when Republicans gained the majority in Congress in the 1994 elections. Mineta lost his chairmanship, and in 1995 he decided to quit to become a vice president of Lockheed Martin.
He did not stay out of the political arena for long, returning in 2000 to be U.S. Secretary of Commerce — the first Asian American to hold a cabinet post — for the final months of President Bill Clinton’s administration. And President George W. Bush appointed him U.S. Secretary of Transportation in 2001, making him just the fourth person to serve on the cabinet of two presidents from different political parties.
That led to one of the most dramatic chapters of his political career when terrorists crashed passenger jets into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001. In a speech to the Rotary Club of San Jose in 2018, he recalled the actions he took as the terrible day unfolded. “At that point there were 4,638 airplanes over the United States and I said, ‘Bring them all down.’ ” he said. “In 2 hours and 20 minutes, all those airplanes were down safely and without incident, but it was a harrowing two or three hours.”
After he left the administration in 2006, he worked for Hill & Knowlton, a public relations company, and later became vice chairman of L&L Energy. He is survived by his wife, Deni; his sons, David and Stuart, and stepsons Robert and Mark Brantner.
On a visit to his hometown in 2007, Mineta was asked which of his many titles he preferred. “Primarily, it’s Mr. Mayor,” he said, “because I really love San Jose.”
Bay Area News Group Staff Writer Ethan R. Baron contributed to this report.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism