Profile: Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta

ByABC News
January 2, 2001, 3:36 PM

— -- Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, the only Democrat in Bush's Cabinet, will remain in his post for a second term -- after much speculation that he was on his way out.

"Everyone was sort of prognosticating about where I would be going or when I would be going." he said in a December interview with his hometown paper, The Mercury News in San Jose, Calif. "In the minds of a lot of people it wasn't a question of if, it was a question of when. I would read those stories, and I would say, 'Is that right?' So it was a real thrill to get the call."

Mineta's profile rose significantly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when the U.S. aviation system came under tough scrutiny.

He oversaw the creation of the Transportation Security Administration, which is now part of the Department of Homeland Security. The TSA was created to screen airline passengers and luggage. Conservatives criticized Mineta when he opposed profiling of Arabs at airports.

Going into Bush's second term, Mineta is faced with some serious work. He is charged with helping push through Congress an unfinished and controversial highway bill left over from last year.

Mineta underwent hip-replacement surgery in 2002, which put him in a wheelchair, and ended up fueling much of the speculation that he would step down at the end of Bush's term.

Previously, Mineta served as commerce secretary in the Clinton administration. Before joining the Clinton Cabinet, the former Silicon Valley congressman sponsored a slew of transportation bills, served for more than 20 years on the House Transportation Committee and had experience in the public and private sectors that drew accolades from all sides.

His confirmation hearing for his current job was practically a love-fest, with neither liberal California Sen. Dianne Feinstein nor then-Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft, a conservative, having a bad word to say about the nominee.

"Frankly, I only wish this happened earlier," Feinstein said.

Ashcroft then highlighted Mineta's "commendable service to the country in the private sector" -- a reference to his most recent job, four years as an executive at the aerospace and defense contracting giant Lockheed Martin.

Mineta's career is studded with firsts: First non-white city council member in San Jose, first Asian-American mayor of a major American city, first Asian-American Cabinet member.

He made his first political contact in an unlikely place, as a 10-year-old in one of the West Coast internment camps where the U.S. government stuck Japanese-Americans during World War II. There, he made friends with a visiting white boy, a fellow Boy Scout -- future Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson.

The anti-Asian racism he encountered in 1940s California didn't dim his patriotism; he enlisted in the Army, serving for three years, and then ran his father's insurance business before entering public life in 1962 as part of San Jose's Human Relations Commission.

Although Mineta has legislative passions for high-tech and aviation bills, he has said numerous times that his proudest achievement is the 1988 bill that offered an official apology and compensation to the surviving victims of the U.S. internment camps.

Aside from transportation, Mineta has made his biggest splash with civil rights legislation, helping to write the Americans with Disabilities Act and a bill to help citizens with poor English skills vote.

Mineta has had his hand in most of the major transportation bills of the 1980s and 1990s, including airline deregulation and ISTEA, a 1991 bill that allowed federal highway money to be used for public transit projects.

After he left Congress in 1995, Mineta stayed in the public eye, heading a committee that reviewed the Federal Aviation Administration in 1998. His committee found the agency to be unfocused and disorganized, and recommended changes in the management structure.

Mineta's viewpoint on transportation is thoroughly 21st century. As befitting his Silicon Valley home base, Mineta has a taste for high-tech transit solutions like "maglev" bullet trains that float above their tracks, electronic toll collection systems, computerized traffic management and electric cars. During a 1995 speech on future transportation systems, he said the nation has to move beyond merely repairing roads into finding new solutions for traffic.

"Technology offers answers to many of our present-day transportation problems and technology might help us avoid new transportation and economic problems in the future," he said.

Mineta is married to Danealia Mineta and has two sons and two stepsons.