What Moves Him? Cars, Trucks, Trains and Planes

Times Staff Writer

From one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other and on both sides of Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats are turning issue after issue into do-or-die tests of political loyalty.

At the center of this partisan combat, seemingly oblivious to the tumult, sits a lifelong California Democrat, Norman Y. Mineta, eagerly playing for the other team.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 28, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 28, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Mineta profile -- An article in Monday’s California section about Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said Santa Anita Park racetrack was in Los Angeles. It is in Arcadia.

Why would a respected Silicon Valley politician who devoted much of his life to the Democratic Party lend his name and credibility to what many see as one of the most conservative and partisan administrations in recent history? Why is the former Democratic mayor of San Jose and longtime congressman cheerfully serving as secretary of Transportation for President Bush?

It’s not that Mineta, 73, has changed his colors -- he still considers himself a liberal. It’s that ideology is nothing compared to the chance to tinker with cars, trucks, trains and planes.

“I guess I’ve just had a longtime passion about transportation, whether it’s cars, trucks, trains or airplanes, whatever moves,” he said in a recent interview.


Some politicians are generalists. Mineta always was a specialist. Some crave the partisan joust. Mineta relishes arcane detail. In short, Mineta is a policy wonk.

Who else sees fulfillment in the reauthorization of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, known as TEA-21?

The $284-billion six-year transportation bill, on which the Senate could vote this week, bears the imprint of his underlying philosophy: that cities and states should decide what to spend on freeways or mass transit, bike paths or flight paths.

“I really want to get [the transportation bill] passed,” Mineta said. So much so, he added, he’s willing to become a salesman for an administration most of his former constituents despise.

Mineta’s perspective began forming more than 30 years ago when he was mayor of San Jose. Between 1972 and 1974, San Jose’s population shot from 350,000 to 580,000, with an accompanying surge in demand for public services.

In response, Mineta and other local officials focused on seven projects that would help answer that need. But the state had other ideas. And it was state, not local, officials who decided how San Jose’s share of state gasoline tax money would be spent. Mineta never forgot the experience.

When he got to Congress 30 years ago, Mineta set about becoming an expert on transportation. And his years on the House Public Works and Transportation Committee only solidified his belief in the importance of giving local officials a voice in decisions.

The Mineta model, in this bill and its predecessor, includes two pots of money, one controlled by federal and state highway officials, the other by local governments. It also directs attention to how transportation projects affect the environment and neighborhoods.

Even though Mineta’s reputation as a transportation expert was well established -- he was rumored to have been in line for Transportation secretary had Michael Dukakis won election in 1988 -- he said he was incredulous when Vice President-elect Dick Cheney called after the divisive 2000 presidential election to offer him the job.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” he told Cheney. Then he called President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and nearly 100 other Democratic friends to ask their blessings.

He later “jumped at” the chance to stay on for Bush’s second term, he said.

Whether Mineta stays through the term’s end or leaves earlier, as some expect, it has been a remarkable journey.

Mineta’s father, Kay, immigrated to the United States from Japan in 1902, at 14.

A few years later, he began corresponding with a friend back home about the need for a wife.

“Remember my little sister?” the friend wrote back, enclosing photographs.

“I’ll marry your sister,” Mineta’s father replied, later describing for his son how he had stood at the foot of a crowded gangplank in San Francisco harbor straining to recognize the woman who would become Kane Mineta.

The youngest of the couple’s five children, Norman Yoshio Mineta was born on Nov. 12, 1931, in an era stained by discrimination against people of Asian descent.

Under California law, immigrants were prohibited from owning or leasing land.

In San Jose, J.B. Peckham, “an honest attorney of high integrity,” as Mineta describes him, took it upon himself to hold property in his own name for members of the Japanese community and deeded it to the family’s first child to come of legal age.

Peckham held title to the house the elder Mineta had built for his family in 1928, surrendering it to the oldest Mineta child when she turned 21.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Minetas were among some 122,000 Japanese Americans interned by the military. His father’s insurance license was suspended. Mineta remembers how “hot tears came from his eyes” as his father talked of having his license revoked.

“I still have the notice that he got with the red stamp across his license,” Mineta said.

On May 31, 1942, Mineta left home wearing his Cub Scout uniform and carrying a baseball mitt and bat. His family was taken first to a hastily rigged holding facility at Santa Anita Park in Los Angeles, then to a camp in Wyoming.

Officials confiscated his baseball bat as a dangerous weapon.

Years later, visiting Santa Anita as a member of a congressional delegation, Mineta was asked by the owner whether he had ever visited the racetrack before.

“Yes,” said Mineta. “I lived in the parking lot in 1942.”

The owner looked horrified, Mineta recalled.

“His face blanched, his chin fell. He said he was sorry.”

Mineta pointed to the paddocks, where the showers had stood, and suggested that there was a bright side to the experience: “Otherwise,” he said, “I never would have taken a shower with Seabiscuit.”

Eventually, the family returned to San Jose, where Mineta entered UC Berkeley and joined the Army ROTC, which assigned him to the transportation corps.

After graduation, he served in a military intelligence unit in Korea, then returned to join his father’s business.

But the family’s expectation that he would carry it on was soon challenged.

The Japanese American community in California had decided that its best protection against future persecution was to groom Japanese Americans to be politicians.

In 1962, Mineta was named to the San Jose Human Rights Commission; five years later, he was on the City Council.

He went on to win the mayor’s office in 1971 and served in Congress from 1975 to 1995.

In 2000, he became the first Japanese American to serve in a presidential Cabinet -- as Commerce secretary in the final year of the Clinton administration.

Mineta said that throughout his career, he never forgot what his father told him before he took that first step into politics:

“I’ve always encouraged all of you to be active in the community,” Mineta said his father told him, “But there’s a big difference between community service and politics.”

His father quoted an adage: In politics, you’re like a nail sticking out from a board -- you get hammered.

Recalling the story recently, Mineta said, “I always look up to the sky and say, ‘Pappa you were right.’ ”



A life’s journey

* A transportation junkie, Norman Mineta loves to drive. Sometimes when his wife joins him in Washington from their home in Annapolis, Md., 38 miles away, he gets to drive home in her Mercedes. When she bought it, he told her to put it in her name. “I would buy American,” he said.

* A fellow Scout, Alan Simpson, visited Mineta when he was imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp in Wyoming. Later, when Simpson was in the Senate, he co-sponsored Mineta’s legislation giving reparations to interned Japanese Americans.

* Mineta’s father moved to California from Japan at age 14 in 1902. The son said, “I remember my dad crying only three times in my life.” The first: Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. “He couldn’t understand why the country of his birth would attack the country of his home.” The second: May 31, 1942, when they were evacuated for imprisonment during the war. The third: June 1956, when Mineta’s mother died.

Los Angeles Times