Norman Yoshio Mineta, a Japanese internment camp survivor, San Jose’s first Asian American mayor and U.S. secretary of transportation during 9/11, died in his Maryland home on Tuesday at age 90.
Mineta is a local legend known for his advocacy during the September 11, 2001 attacks. As the secretary of transportation, he swiftly directed planes to fly into Canada, issued statements to several national airlines to avoid discriminating against Arabs and Muslims and was instrumental in creating the Transportation Security Agency. For that, the Mineta San Jose International Airport was named in his honor the same year.
Rod Diridon, one of Mineta’s closest friends and another local transportation legend, told San José Spotlight the city is heartbroken.
“We’re all heartbroken. He was getting a little older, we understood that—but we did expect him to live forever,” Diridon said. “We’re going to miss him terribly. Personally, it’s like losing a big brother.”
When asked what he would remember most about Mineta, Diridon said his gentle tenacity.
“When he was determined to be successful on a measure, he never gave up,” Diridon said. “He was always cordial and caring about the people around him, but he kept his eye on the gold and delivered for the people.”
San Jose Director of Aviation John Aitken echoed the sentiment.
“Just last year, Secretary Mineta spent his birthday on Zoom with a group of our airport staff to discuss his experience as a first-generation Japanese American during World War II and how it shaped his commitment to a career in public service,” Aitken told San José Spotlight. “He often joked that he found it odd that his parents named him after an airport. The truth is, he inspired us with much more than just his name, and we are proud to be entrusted with his legacy.”
State Assemblymember Alex Lee said Mineta was a trailblazer in the transportation space, as well as for the Asian American Pacific Islander community.
“He always led with dignity and integrity, and he paved the way and made it possible for people like myself to succeed in politics,” Lee said. “While I never had the chance to meet him personally, his presence, wisdom and legacy will be sorely missed.”
Mineta’s political career started in San Jose in 1967 as the city’s first Asian American councilmember, before serving as mayor from 1971 to 1975.
In a 2021 interview with San José Spotlight, Mineta said his background and experience in the internment camp inspired his advocacy and public service. He took a vow of silence when he was sworn into the City Council.
“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 previously said.
Mineta shared he will always have 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.”
Assemblymember Evan Low told San José Spotlight Mineta was the “ultimate embodiment of patriotism.”
“His legacy and passion for public service inspired generations to answer the call to public service in San Jose and beyond,” Low said. “He was a civil rights icon for our AAPI community as someone who survived the unjust Japanese internment. As we recognize the month of May as AAPI Heritage Month and the sad loss of our hometown hero, let us reaffirm our commitment to partnership over partisanship and continue the Norman Mineta legacy in San Jose of service.”
In his decades-long career, Mineta broke barriers in local government and Congress, ascending to the Oval Office’s closest circles. He served in President Bill Clinton’s administration as secretary of commerce and in Congress representing San Jose from 1975 to 1995. In that time he founded and chaired the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
Regardless of all the accolades and high offices, some say mayor was still Mineta’s favorite title to hold.
“Whenever Norm was asked about his incredible career, which took him to our nation’s highest offices, he never forgot where he was from: “My favorite title,” he’d often tell people, “was always ‘Mr. Mayor,’” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said in a statement. “San Jose has lost a great champion, and I have lost a deeply admired mentor… Norm’s legacy is one steadfast defense of our civil liberties, and defense of our nation in the perilous hours of 9/11.”
State Sen.Dave Cortese said Mineta’s legacy “will leave a lasting impression for years to come.”
“Secretary Mineta embodied what it means to be a public servant and was an inspiration to countless leaders including myself,” Cortese said in a statement. “I am deeply saddened.”
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.