Norman Mineta, Transportation Secretary Who Helped Create TSA, Dies at 90

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Norman Y. Mineta, a first-generation Japanese American who was held in an internment camp during World War II and later became one of the country’s highest-profile Asian-American political leaders, as mayor of a big city, 10-term congressman and cabinet secretary, died May 3 at his home in Edgewater, Maryland. He was 90 years old.

The cause was a heart ailment, said John Flaherty, his former chief of staff.

As a Democratic congressman and later as a cabinet member for Democratic and Republican presidents, Mr. Mineta was widely recognized for his expertise in Byzantine policies governing the nation’s highways, railroads, and airports. In 1971, he was the first Asian American to lead a major US city, his native San Jose, which was in the midst of a population boom.

During his tenure in Congress representing Silicon Valley from 1975 to 1995, he championed civil liberties and played a key role in obtaining an official apology and compensation for Japanese Americans who were forced from their homes during World War II when their ancestry made them objects of the government. suspicion.

Mr. Mineta served briefly as Secretary of Commerce toward the end of the Bill Clinton administration, and was appointed Secretary of Transportation by incoming President George W. Bush in January 2001. His career was most clearly defined by the attacks al-Qaeda terrorists on September 11, 2001.

After the second plane hit the World Trade Center in New York that day, Mineta, along with Vice President Dick Cheney, were taken to a secret bunker under the White House. There, Mr. Mineta made the unprecedented decision to ground all 4,638 planes in US airspace. No emergency protocol had been established to take them all down at once.

A subordinate informed Mr. Mineta that the pilots would be told to land at their discretion. That wasn’t good enough. “I didn’t want a pilot over Kansas City thinking, ‘Well, I’m going to fly to Los Angeles, I’m going to sleep in my own bed tonight,’” Mineta said later.

All planes were grounded in two hours and 20 minutes.

In the months that followed, Mr. Mineta worked 100 hours a week to plug security holes at seaports, airports and railway stations, and those related to oil and gas lines. He spearheaded the effort to start a new agency, the Transportation Security Administration. The TSA, established by Congress on November 19, 2001, grew larger than the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Border Patrol combined.

In little more than a year, the TSA, which in 2003 moved from the Department of Transportation to the new Department of Homeland Security, replaced a patchwork of private security companies. The agency hired and trained tens of thousands of federal baggage screeners and implemented a strict set of rules that transformed the American airport experience.

“His calm hands on the reins after 9/11 is one of his greatest legacies,” Michael P. Jackson, then deputy secretary of homeland security, told The Washington Post in 2006. “He just had the credibility to lead a team of people . do meaningful work in every nook and cranny of the Department of Transportation.”

Months after Mr. Mineta’s resignation in 2006, George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The San José airport had been named in his honor in 2001.

Mr. Mineta entered politics in the late 1960s as a member of the San Jose city council. When he became mayor, the city was in the midst of a decades-long population explosion fueled by burgeoning aerospace and service industries. The demand for city services increased and Mr. Mineta became intimately familiar with the problems of traffic congestion and the limits of the city’s transportation network.

He was frustrated that local officials had no more say in how federal funds should be used to improve highways and rail, and he vowed to change that as a member of Congress.

First elected to the House in 1974, he sat on the Public Works and Transportation Committee, a position that allowed him to help bring billions of dollars to California for highway construction and maintenance.

He played a key role in crafting and passing the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, a 1991 law that reshaped federal transportation policy, placing a new emphasis on public transportation and signaling the end of the government’s single-minded focus on interstate highways.

“Expanding the role of transit and transit funding — that was one of his signature contributions,” former Congressman James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), Mineta’s colleague on the transportation committee since, said in an interview for this obituary. long time ago. in 2011. (Oberstar died in 2014). “The preeminent emphasis on highways was not going to get us out of the morass of congestion that we were increasingly facing as we completed the interstate system.”

In 1992, Mineta turned down the chance to become President Bill Clinton’s transportation secretary so he could chair the House transportation committee, where he thought he could have a more direct impact on policy.

Two years later, a Republican tide carried a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, and Mineta lost the presidency. Shortly after, he relinquished the seat to him.

He spent several years as an executive with Lockheed Martin before returning to public service as secretary of commerce for the last six months of the Clinton administration. When Bush won the disputed 2000 presidential election, he kept Mineta on as transportation secretary in a display of bipartisanship.

“There is no such thing as a Democratic highway or a Republican bridge,” Mineta liked to say.

Outside of his work on transportation policy, Mr. Mineta was best known for defending the estimated 120,000 Japanese Americans who were forced to live in internment camps during World War II.

More than 40 years after the war ended, he urged his colleagues in the US House of Representatives to issue a formal apology and “close the books on one of the most shameful events in our history.”

“We lost our homes, we lost our businesses, we lost our farms, but worst of all, we lost our most basic human rights,” he said on the House floor in 1987. “Our own government had branded us with the unwarranted stigma of disloyalty that it clings to us to this day.”

The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 authorized $20,000 in reparations for each surviving internee; passed with bipartisan support and served as an official acknowledgment that the incarceration of Japanese Americans was wrong, the result of “racial bias, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership,” as a presidential panel had concluded .

In 1991, when the United States went to war with Iraq in the Persian Gulf, Mineta warned against targeting Arab Americans and said he hoped the country could avoid sinking into such racism and fear again.

“The Constitution of the United States must not become a victim of our conflict with Saddam Hussein,” he said at the time.

Later, as secretary of transportation at the forefront of security efforts after 9/11, Mr. Mineta fiercely resisted racial profiling in baggage check lines. “I’ve been criticized for going after blue-haired grannies in airports, but I felt very strongly about it,” he told a McClatchy reporter in 2006.

The life of a 10-year-old boy turned upside down

Norman Yoshio Mineta was born to Japanese immigrants in San Jose on November 12, 1931, the youngest of five children. He was 10 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into World War II.

In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order that characterized West Coast residents of Japanese descent as a threat to national security. They were ordered out of their homes to one of several camps in the interior west, taking only what they could carry.

Norman was wearing his Boy Scout uniform and clutching a baseball glove and bat as he and his brothers boarded a train in San Jose. He recalled a US soldier confiscating the bat, calling it a deadly weapon.

The Mineta were eventually taken to Heart Mountain, Wyoming, a makeshift settlement surrounded by a tall fence and barbed wire. “Some say the internment was for our own good,” Mineta recalled later. “But even when he was a 10-year-old boy, he could see the machine guns and the barbed wire looking in.”

In Wyoming, Mr. Mineta befriended a local Boy Scout named Alan Simpson, who visited the camp and later became a United States Senator. Decades later, when Mr. Mineta sought a reparations bill in the House, Simpson sponsored a companion bill in the Senate.

“He got through all of that with the camps getting over any kind of resentment or bitterness,” Simpson told The Post in 2000. “You look at the way he handled it and how hard he’s worked since then and you say: a person of depth.’ ”

Mr. Mineta stayed in Heart Mountain for 18 months before moving to the Chicago area, where his father, an insurance agent by trade, had volunteered to teach Japanese courses to US Army soldiers. Norman Mineta was a teenager when his family was able to return to San Jose.

Mr. Mineta graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1953 and then served for three years as an Army intelligence officer. He later worked for his father’s insurance company in San Jose before being groomed for political office by leaders of the city’s Japanese American community.

His first marriage, to May Hinoki, ended in divorce. In 1991 he married Danealia “Deni” Brantner, a flight attendant. In addition to his wife, from Edgewater, there are two surviving sons from his first marriage, David Mineta of San Jose and Stuart Mineta of Redwood City, California; two stepchildren, Robert Brantner of West River, Md., and Mark Brantner of Johnson City, Tenn.; and 11 grandchildren.

When Mr. Mineta was serving in Congress, a Los Angeles man sent him a symbolic gift to make up for what he had lost as a child. It was a bat that had belonged to Hall of Famer Hank Aaron. It was worth $1,500, more than the $250 a House member could accept, under federal rules, and Mineta had to return the bat to the sender of it.

“The goddamn government has taken the bat from me again,” he said at the time.

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