Norman Mineta, political pioneer who fought for Japanese American rights, dies at 90

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta speaks at a lectern
Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta speaks during the 9/11 commemoration at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in 2019.
(Scott Smeltzer / Times Community News)

Norman Mineta, the first Asian American Cabinet secretary and a longtime California congressman who fought for recognition and reparations for Japanese Americans imprisoned by the U.S. government during World War II, died Tuesday. He was 90.

Mineta was a driving force behind the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which required the U.S. government to apologize to the 120,000 people of Japanese descent forced to live in wartime incarceration camps. Those imprisoned in the camps received reparations of $20,000 each.

Deeply trusted and widely respected in Congress and in the Japanese American community, Mineta disarmed skeptics and helped them see the importance of redressing this historical wrong, said John Tateishi, who directed the national redress campaign for the Japanese American Citizens League.


Some community elders, for instance, believed that demanding monetary compensation ran counter to Japanese cultural tendencies to avoid causing problems and to push forward without complaints.

“He convinced elders that this was not something we’re doing for ourselves, but that it had a greater meaning to our country, which was to restore the foundation of our democracy,” Tateishi said.

Other Japanese American congressional leaders at the time, including Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento) and Sens. Daniel K. Inouye and Spark Matsunaga of Hawaii, also played crucial roles.

In the House of Representatives, where he chaired the powerful Public Works Committee, Mineta shared his story of being incarcerated as a young boy.

“He was a constant reminder to his colleagues about the tragedy of what happened to Japanese Americans in terms of the Constitution and opening a wound that would not heal until that was rectified,” Tateishi said.

Mineta’s friendships across the aisle were also key. He grew close with Alan K. Simpson when the two met as youths at a Boy Scouts Jamboree; Simpson later became a Republican senator from Wyoming and co-sponsored with Mineta the 1988 Civil Liberties Act.


“I don’t think redress would have passed without Mineta,” Tateishi said. “He said he entered public service because he saw how easily our lives could be changed by racism.”

John Flaherty, Mineta’s former chief of staff, said Mineta died peacefully at his home surrounded by family in Edgewater, Md.

Mineta broke racial barriers for Asian Americans in becoming mayor of San Jose. He also was the first Asian American to become a federal Cabinet secretary, serving under both Presidents Clinton, a Democrat, and George W. Bush, a Republican.

Bush went on to award 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 hardship and prejudice to serve in the United States Army, Congress, and the Cabinet of two presidents.

“As my secretary of Transportation, he showed great leadership in helping prevent further attacks on and after 9/11,” Bush added. “As I said when presenting him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Norm has given his country a lifetime of service, and he’s given his fellow citizens an example of leadership, devotion to duty, and personal character.”

Mineta began his political career leading his hometown of San Jose before joining the Clinton administration as Commerce secretary and then crossing party lines to serve in Bush’s Cabinet.


As Bush’s Transportation secretary, Mineta led the department during the crisis of Sept. 11, 2001, as hijacked commercial airliners barreled toward U.S. landmarks. After a second plane crashed into the World Trade Center, Mineta ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to ground all civilian aircraft — more than 4,500 were in flight at the time. It was the first such order given in the history of U.S. aviation.

It was Mineta who was subsequently charged with restoring confidence in air travel after the terror attacks. He oversaw the hasty creation of the Transportation Security Administration, which took over responsibility for aviation security from airlines.

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

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

In 2006, he resigned at age 74 after 5½ years in his post, making him the longest-serving Transportation secretary since the agency was created in 1967.

Norman Yoshio Mineta was born on Nov. 12, 1931. He was age 10 and wearing his Cub Scouts uniform when he and his parents were sent to the Heart Mountain incarceration camp in Wyoming after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.


Mineta’s foray into politics came in 1967, when San Jose’s mayor tapped him to fill a vacant seat on the City Council. He won reelection 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, which now has an airport that bears his name.

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

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

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

Mineta then became the first Cabinet secretary to make the switch directly from a Democratic to Republican administration. He was the only Democrat in Bush’s Cabinet.

Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe and the Associated Press contributed to this report.