Remembering Norm Mineta: Groundbreaking Cabinet Member

Posted by on May 19, 2022 in Top Stories, United States

Norman Mineta died on May 3, 2022, at his home in Maryland. Mineta served in two presidential cabinets as head of the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. Mineta was the first Asian American appointed to the Cabinet in 2000. As Transportation Secretary during the Bush administration, he helped manage the airline industry in the days following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He also helped develop a new airline industry security plan following these attacks. Mineta was the longest-serving Secretary of Transportation in U.S. history. Here, btw remembers the life and contributions of this extraordinary American. 

Childhood During World War II  

Mineta was born and raised in the Japantown section of San Jose, California. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he and his family were forcibly removed from their homes and send to an internment camp. In 1942, the Minetas (and more than 120,000 other Japanese American men, women, and children) were sent to Japanese American internment camps throughout the western United States. The Minetas were sent to the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center in Wyoming. Mineta was just ten years old at the time. 

The Minetas lived in a 20 x 25-foot room at the camp. They hung sheets to section off different areas for privacy. The camp was surrounded by barbed wire and monitored by armed military guards. This experience deeply shaped Mineta’s later advocacy. As an adult, Mineta said that he always treasured the word “citizen” because this was a term the government refused to grant him and his family during the war.  

His Political Career 

Mineta graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a major in business. He also served as an intelligence officer in the Korean War. Later, he volunteered on San Jose’s Human Relations Commission, which grew his interest in politics and government. In 1967, he won a seat on the San Jose City Council. He was the first Asian American to ever hold that position. Mineta also became the first Asian American mayor of a major city, when he won election as San Jose’s mayor in 1971. Mineta later ran for US Congress and served in the House of Representatives from 1975 until 1995.  

In Congress, Mineta advocated for the first Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) week, which now has been expanded to a month. He founded the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, which connected and mentored Asian American and Pacific Islander politicians. He served on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and pushed for transportation protections to be included in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Finally, he also led the creation of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. This legislation awarded reparations of $20,000 to every Japanese American imprisoned during World War II. 

In 2000, President Bill Clinton appointed Mineta as Commerce Secretary, making him the first Asian American to serve in the Cabinet. Later, President George W. Bush appointed him as Secretary of Transportation. In the weeks after the 9/11 Attacks, Mineta’s most important contribution may have been inspired by his World War II childhood. As anti-Muslim sentiment increased after September 11th, 2001, President Bush remembered Mineta’s difficult childhood. He told his Cabinet advisors that he didn’t want to repeat the same mistakes with Muslim Americans. 

An Historic Legacy 

In 2006, President Bush awarded Mineta the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Mineta retired the same year to spend more time with his family. Mineta died at the age of 90. He is survived by his wife, Dani; four children; and several grandchildren. 

What Do You Think? In your opinion, what was Norm Mineta’s greatest contribution? Why?