San Jose Legends: Norm Mineta—from council to cabinet
Norm Mineta. Photo courtesy of Mineta Legacy Project.

Editor’s Note: San Jose Legends is a new series that tells remarkable stories of the historic and legendary people who helped shape and transform our city.

The morning after Norm Mineta broke barriers by becoming San Jose’s first Asian-American mayor, he woke up to a racist message sprawled on the garage door of his Japantown home.

“Someone had spray-painted ‘J-A-P,'” Mineta told San José Spotlight, referring to the World War II-era Japanese slur.

But Mineta had to quickly get over it, and “stored it away” to deal with city issues. San Jose entered a post-World War II development boom, transforming it from a farm town to a quickly developing city that stressed public services. Mineta halted previous policies of expansion, opting to redirect services back to underserved areas such as the city center, and east and south San Jose.

It was the first of many critical decisions Mineta, 89, made.

Three years after waking up to the racist slur, he won a Congressional contest in 1974 and went on to win his next nine House elections, serving the 13th and then 15th districts for 18 years.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton appointed Mineta to become the Secretary of Commerce, the first Asian American to ever hold the office. In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed Mineta to become Secretary of Transportation, a position he served in until 2006—the longest of any transportation secretary, and the only Democrat in the Bush cabinet. His time in the department gave him the identity of a fierce public transportation advocate.

Just after 9:30 a.m. on September 11, 2001, Mineta made one of the most consequential decisions as a member of the new president’s cabinet. After watching United Airlines Flight 175 crash into the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York, Mineta, Vice President Dick Cheney, then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and several other White House officials were hurried into the bunker.

After the group learned that American Airlines Flight 77 had struck the Pentagon, in a tense exchange, Mineta ordered FAA Director Monte Belger to “screw pilots’ discretion” and ground all 4,500 flights around the country and divert them to Canada.

“Well, I didn’t use the word ‘screw,'” Mineta said. “The vice president was seated across from me. I thought he was going to break his neck when he snapped around to listen to what I was saying.”

Days later, Mineta issued a memo to all U.S. commercial airlines urging them not to racially profile Arab or Muslim passengers after government officials learned Al-Qaeda orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. He pressed the president to create the Transportation Security Administration, now the chief security service for the nation’s airports.

“He helped remind President Bush and the cabinet that 9/11 wasn’t an excuse to discriminate against people from the Middle East,” said Dianne Fukami, director and executive producer of “Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story,” a documentary film about the secretary’s life. “Coming from internment, Norm knew what that experience was like.”

Two months later, the San Jose City Council voted to name the city’s international airport after Mineta, cementing his local legacy as a transportation legend.

The Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport. Photo by Nicholas Chan.
The Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport. Photo by Nicholas Chan.

Humble beginnings

Mineta started his political career in 1967 when then-Mayor Ron James appointed him to the San Jose City Council. While on a car ride from his insurance agency in Japantown to City Hall for his swearing-in ceremony, he took a silent vow.

“Because I was the first non-white person on the City Council in the city’s history, I wanted to be representative of those who had not been represented or who were underrepresented,” Mineta said.

Mineta became the first Asian American councilmember in the city’s history and eventually the first Asian American mayor of San Jose. In his decades-long career, Mineta broke barriers in local government and Congress, ascending to the Oval Office’s closest circles.

Unlikely friendships

Mineta was born in San Jose to Japanese immigrant parents in 1931. In 1942 during World War II, Mineta and his family—all California residents fluent in English—were part of the thousands of Japanese Americans forcibly taken from their homes and moved to internment camps. The government moved the Mineta family to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in northwest Wyoming.

Defying local orders, a Boy Scout troop from nearby Cody, Wyoming, entered the internment camp to show support for its closure. There, Mineta met his future best friend, Alan K. Simpson, who decades later became a Republican senator.

The pair bonded over a prank they decided to pull on the troop’s bully.

“We made a beautiful moat, and we cut the water to exit on the bully’s tent below us,” Mineta said. It sent Simpson and the kids in Mineta’s tent into fits of laughter.

As their friendship blossomed over the next few days, Simpson came to see Mineta and those in the camp as fellow Americans. Mineta meanwhile saw the troop as he saw himself: tying the same knots and earning the same Boy Scout badges.

Mineta and his wife, Deni Brantner Mineta. Mineta was appointed grand marshal of the 2016 Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of the Mineta Legacy Project.

The ‘most epic individual’

Two names dominate the transportation conversation in San Jose: Mineta and his close friend Rod Diridon, the “father of South Bay transportation.” Between the pair, the city’s largest train station, the city’s only international airport, highways and a think tank are named after them. But for Diridon, there’s no competition: Mineta is king.

“Norm Mineta is the most epic individual ever raised in our county,” Diridon said.

Diridon sits on the board of the Mineta Transportation Institute where the two transportation giants trade tips on advocating for public transport and the betterment of the area.

While in the House of Representatives, Mineta authored what he considers his biggest congressional achievement: the bipartisan Intermodal Surface Transportation Act. The act implemented sweeping reforms for the national highway system, such as better integrating public transport systems and giving more local control to transit agencies.

“Norm created consensus. He found a way to bring people together around important issues,” Diridon said. “All of us younger folks should learn from him.”

Mineta, his wife Deni and son Stuart at the Hammer Theater watch a screening of Mineta’s documentary. Photo courtesy of the Mineta Transportation Institute.

Since leaving politics, Mineta served in a variety of consulting roles. While working in Washington, Mineta and his wife Deni Brantner Mineta—coincidentally a former flight attendant—bought a summer home in Edgewater, Maryland, an hour away from his offices in southeastern D.C. and just minutes from the coastline, where the couple spends much of the summer boating and jet skiing. The couple has since moved to Maryland permanently.

“It’s the closest we could get to California without being in California,” Deni joked.

Mineta said he still has a soft spot for the city he grew up in and, most importantly, all the mentors who guided him from a young boy in Japantown to rubbing elbows with two presidents.

“I’ve never been able to do a lot of this stuff alone,” Mineta said. “I’ve had the great fortune of having great tutelage and good mentorship. I’ve been very fortunate in that regard.”

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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