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Mineta Pushes Policy in Battleground States

Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta, the lone Democrat in President Bush’s Cabinet, has emerged in recent months as a visible and vigorous advocate for administration policies in events across the country, travel records indicate.

While Mineta has reaffirmed a pledge of political neutrality he took upon taking his post more than three years ago, his travels have included numerous trips to states that are considered key to the president’s chances for re-election, including Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Aides to Mineta emphasize that the secretary and the administration consider his trips to be official department business only — that is, opportunities to promote the administration’s transportation policies. The aides emphasize that the trips are not designed to boost President Bush’s chances of winning a second term.

Mineta has made a strong effort to stay above politics, administration officials say, noting that political agnosticism is something he worked out personally with President Bush in the earliest days of his administration.

“The secretary is a statesman — he is not a partisan in this job,” said Transportation Department spokesman Robert Johnson. As to speculation about how Mineta’s activities translate in an election year, Johnson said, “That is what it is” — just speculation.

“The secretary has no qualms about the work he has done for this president,” Johnson added, “and he is proud of what he has accomplished of transportation issues for this president.”

Mineta, a former chairman of the House committee then known as Public Works and Transportation, faces an unusual situation for a Cabinet-level official.

Although cross-party service in a presidential cabinet is not unprecedented — most recently, Republican Sen. William Cohen (Maine) served as President Clinton’s secretary of Defense — Mineta is the first in recent memory to hold a position that often blends official and political motives. For Cohen — or for someone serving as secretary of State, secretary of Treasury or, going forward, secretary of Homeland Security — campaign-style appearances are, under a longstanding tradition, discouraged.

But most presidents have not frowned upon their secretary of Transportation making trips that serve a dual purpose. The main difference with Mineta is that he served from 1974 to 1996 as a Democrat in the House.

While Mineta was more moderate than some fellow members of the California delegation, and while he became an expert at putting together bipartisan bills while heading the transportation committee, Mineta could hardly be called a closet conservative. He regularly received high vote ratings from the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action.

This back story has left Mineta in a tight spot. Even as Mineta sought to carve out a non-political niche in the cabinet, the reality of a tight presidential race has made even straightforward policy events seem freighted with partisan significance.

In February, the secretary embarked on a multi-state tour intended, his aides say, to “re-state” the administration’s support for a “fiscally responsible” six-year highway bill, and to “thank” lawmakers who had supported the president’s agenda.

One such lawmaker given a joint appearance with Mineta was Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who at the time was locked in a fierce primary battle with Rep. Pat Toomey — a contest where President Bush actively backed Specter. Pennsylvania is also considered a crucial state for President Bush’s re-election chances.

At an event in Pittsburgh, Mineta thanked Specter for his “commitment to the president’s principles,” while highlighting administration support for improvements to Pittsburgh’s downtown “gateway” and other needed projects.

President Bush’s plan “means solid investment in the economy through better roads and transit systems, good construction jobs, and most importantly, more money in taxpayers’ pockets,” Mineta told the crowd, according to a transcript. “This is precisely why President Bush is prepared to veto any transportation bill that would raise gas taxes, increase the federal deficit, or take money from other important programs to pay for road projects.”

Mineta delivered a similar message during visits to California, Georgia and Ohio. While California is considered a likely Democratic state and Georgia a likely Republican state, Ohio has been dubbed “the new Florida” for its nip-and-tuck battle between Bush and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Mineta’s Ohio visit was centered on Cleveland, a media market that serves much of the eastern half of the state.

During Mineta’s visit to Georgia the secretary shared the podium with the state’s two Senators — Republican Saxby Chambliss, who with Bush’s help won a hard-fought race against incumbent Democrat Max Cleland in 2002, and Zell Miller, a lifelong Democrat who has recently become an outspoken advocate of President Bush and conservative principles.

Brian Turmail, a Transportation spokesman, said that the trips are not chosen with politics in mind. “We go where the transportation stories are,” he said. “A lot of states — Pennsylvania and Georgia — were selected because there were people there who supported the president’s highway bill, and we wanted to thank them.”

In just a four-month span, Mineta has traveled to other battleground states beyond Pennsylvania and Ohio. These include Arkansas and West Virginia — states won by Bush in 2000 but hungrily eyed by the Kerry camp — and Wisconsin, which went for Democrat Al Gore in 2000 but which is considered up for grabs this fall.

In the meantime, the Transportation Department has also announced major project grants during this period that would benefit Michigan, Minnesota, and Oregon — three Gore states that are considered in play for 2004 — as well as one that would aid North Carolina, a generally Republican state that could become a target for Kerry if he names Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) as his running mate.

Then there’s the biggest and most fiercely contested prize of all: Florida. Mineta has visited the state almost monthly since the beginning of the year, appearing at events in Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood and Jacksonville. Recently in South Florida — an area expected to be particularly critical to the president’s re-election hopes — Mineta announced the awarding of a grant for expansion of light rail service between Palm Beach and Miami-Dade County.

Mineta aides emphasize that the “direction of the [transportation] debate” in Congress has determined the secretary’s public schedule.

Aides to Mineta say that the secretary always invites lawmakers to events — regardless of party — when he is in their districts. They note, for instance, that during Mineta’s trip to West Virginia in March, his appearance was coordinated closely with Rep. Nick Rahall, a leading Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from the Mountain State.

Mineta’s trip to West Virginia included a speech to the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce and the announcement of a $6.4 million grant to that city’s Tri-State airport. It was part of what his office called a “day-long focus on [the] Appalachian Region’s Transportation Future.”

“A vibrant and vital transportation network is absolutely essential to President Bush’s efforts to revitalize our economy and expand jobs and opportunities for the people of this great nation,” Mineta said in his speech to Huntington’s chamber.

Those who have watched Mineta through the years suggest that the former lawmaker is well-suited to walking the political tightrope.

“Norm Mineta has never been an overtly partisan guy,” said one transportation lobbyist, who added that the secretary was not a “bomb-thrower” for the Democrats during his long tenure in Congress. “I’d be highly surprised if he started doing any political stuff.”

Nevertheless, official neutrality has become more difficult to maintain as transportation policy and funding has itself moved into the political sphere.

The administration and Congress are currently deadlocked on funding for the highway bill — a stand-off that will be tough to end as the president seeks to demonstrate that he can hold the line on spending.

“This [process of passing a highway bill] is being driven by politicos, not policy wonks,” said Matthew Jeanneret of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.

Despite Mineta’s challenges, Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess has confidence that Mineta’s long experience in Washington will allow him to preserve his autonomy.

“I don’t think there’s anything awkward for him,” Hess said. “If he felt there was going to be something awkward, he should have left before the beginning of the year.”

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