Norman Mineta, Minister of Transport in the 9/11 era, dies


ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Norman Mineta, who broke racial barriers for Asian Americans to serve in high-profile government posts and served as the nation’s federal transportation minister, ordered commercial flights grounded after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, died Tuesday. He was 90.

John Flaherty, Mineta’s former chief of staff, said Mineta died peacefully at his home surrounded by his family in Edgewater, Maryland, just east of the nation’s capital.

“The cause of his death was a heart condition,” Flaherty added. “He was an exceptional official and a very dear friend.”

Mineta broke racial barriers for Asian Americans when he became mayor of San Jose, California early in his political career. He later became the first Asian American to become federal cabinet secretary, serving under both Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican George W. Bush.

Bush awarded Mineta the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In a statement, the former president said Mineta was “a wonderful American story about someone who overcame adversity and prejudice to serve in the US Army, in Congress and in the cabinets of two presidents.”

“As my Secretary of Transportation, he has shown great leadership in helping prevent further attacks on and after 9/11. As I said when I presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Norm has served his country throughout his life and he has set an example of leadership, devotion to duty and personal character to his fellow citizens,” said the former president.

The son of Japanese immigrants, who spent two years of his childhood in a World War II internment camp, began his political career as leader of his hometown of San Jose before joining the Clinton administration as Secretary of Commerce and then crossing party lines to serve in Bush’s cabinet .

As Bush’s Secretary of Transportation, Mineta headed the department during the September 11, 2001 crisis, when hijacked airliners sped toward US landmarks. After a second plane crashed into the World Trade Center, Mineta ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to ground all civilian planes — then more than 4,500 in flight. It was the first such order in US aviation history.

Mineta was then tasked with restoring confidence in air travel after the terrorist attacks. He oversaw the hasty establishment of the Transportation Security Administration, which took responsibility for aviation security from the airlines.

Within a year, TSA had hired tens of thousands of airport screeners, sent air marshals on commercial flights, and installed high-tech equipment to check airliners and their luggage for bombs.

The effort was derided at the time for wasteful spending and long lines at airports. But Mineta, widely loved and respected in Washington for his in-depth knowledge of transportation issues, managed to escape the brunt of that criticism.

In 2006 he resigned after 5 1/2 years at the age of 74, becoming the longest-serving Minister for Transport since the agency’s inception in 1967.

Born on November 12, 1931, Norman Yoshio Mineta was 10 years old and wearing his Boy Scout uniform when he and his parents were sent to Heart Mountain Detention Center in Wyoming after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and served as an army intelligence officer in Korea and Japan. After three years in the military, he returned to San Jose to run his father’s Mineta insurance agency.

Mineta’s foray into politics came in 1967 when the mayor of San Jose offered him a vacancy on the city council. He won re-election and served four more years on the council before winning the city’s top seat in 1971, making him the first Asian-American mayor of a major city. It now has an airport that bears his name.

Mineta was elected to Congress in 1974 and served 10 terms representing Silicon Valley. During his tenure, he pushed for more funding for the FAA and co-authored a landmark law that gave state and local governments control over highway and transit decisions.

The co-founder of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus also scored a personal victory when he helped secure passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which required the U.S. government to apologize to the 120,000 Japanese-Americans who died during the war had to live in internment camps. Former internees also received reparations of $20,000 each.

In 1993, Mineta became chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee — another first — but he quickly lost that job after Republicans gained control of the House in 1994.

Mineta resigned from Congress in 1995 to serve as senior vice president of Lockheed Martin Corp.’s transportation division. to join, which built and operated electronic toll collection systems.

But Washington called again five years later when Clinton appointed him to replace William Daley as Secretary of Commerce in the final months of his presidency.

Mineta then became the first cabinet secretary to move directly from a Democratic to a Republican government. He was the only Democrat in Bush’s cabinet.

As Secretary of Transportation, Mineta successfully sponsored private investment in roads and bridges such as the Chicago Skyway and Indiana Toll Road, and helped pass a $286 billion freeway spending plan after nearly two years of wrangling with Congress.

After overseeing TSA’s rapid takeoff, Mineta had his department downsized by nearly two-thirds when TSA and the Coast Guard were moved to the Department of Homeland Security in 2003 in the largest government reshuffle in nearly six decades.

After retiring from public service, he joined the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton as vice chairman and settled with his wife Danealia in Maryland near the Chesapeake Bay.


Chea reported from San Francisco.


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