Norm Mineta, who went from incarceration camp to two Cabinet agencies, dead at 90

He spent 20 years in Congress, retiring as chair of the House Transportation and Public Works Committee

Former Rep. Norman Mineta, D-Calif, hugs his son Stuart during the unveiling of his portrait in 1995. (Maureen Keating/CQ Roll Call)
Former Rep. Norman Mineta, D-Calif, hugs his son Stuart during the unveiling of his portrait in 1995. (Maureen Keating/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 3, 2022 at 8:22pm

Norman Mineta, the first Asian American secretary of Transportation and a longtime California lawmaker, died Tuesday, according to a statement released by his former chief of staff. He was 90.

Mineta, a one-time Democratic mayor of San Jose, Calif., served as Cabinet secretary for two presidential administrations, first serving as the secretary of Commerce for Bill Clinton from 2000 to 2001, then serving as secretary of Transportation for George W. Bush from 2001 through 2006. 

“I’m saddened to hear of the passing of former @USDOT Secretary Norman Mineta - a strong bipartisan voice for American infrastructure, Asian American trailblazer, and exemplary leader in both local and federal office,” tweeted Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Mineta, a first-generation Japanese American, spent several years of his childhood in the Heart Mountain incarceration camp near Cody, Wyo., during World War II.

After Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 1941, the Roosevelt administration ordered the forced relocation of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans living in the U.S. to a series of 10 incarceration camps, largely in Western states. 

U.S. authorities moved Mineta and his family to the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming in the fall of 1942. They were there for three years.

Shirley Higuchi, chair of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, a nonprofit preserving the Heart Mountain site, said the time Mineta spent locked up lingered with him throughout his life.

“He was a very bright, shining boy,” Higuchi said by phone. “Even if you look at his incarceration photos, he was smiling all the time. Even when he was behind the barbed wire.”

Mineta met former Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., when Simpson’s scout troop visited the camp and the pair shared a pup tent.

Decades later in Congress and after, the California Democrat and the Wyoming Republican worked together to elevate the issue of the incarceration of people of Japanese origin.

“Their chance meeting in 1943 at Heart Mountain, where Norm was one of 14,000 Americans incarcerated because of their Japanese ancestry, shaped the rest of their lives,” Deni Mineta and Ann Simpson, the lawmakers’ wives, said in a letter this year describing recent work of the Mineta-Simpson Institute at Heart Mountain.

The pair worked together for the passage of the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, which granted $20,000 and a formal apology for those interned during World War II.

Roughly two-thirds of the incarcerated people across all ten sites were American citizens.

“Norm's is a wonderful American story about someone who overcame hardship and prejudice to serve in the U.S, Army, Congress, and the Cabinet of two Presidents,” Bush said in a statement.

Following his graduation from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1953, Mineta served three years as an Army intelligence officer during the Korean War.

He went on to become a city councilman, vice mayor and eventually mayor of San Jose.

He was elected to Congress in 1975, and served for 20 years, retiring as chairman of what was then the Committee on Public Works and Transportation. 

His service on the committee and as secretary of Transportation - he was the longest-serving in that job - spurred Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to fight to have the Department of Transportation headquarters named after him along with William T. Coleman Jr., the first Black man to head the department, earlier this year. 

As secretary of Transportation, Mineta ordered the grounding of all U.S. flights after terrorists attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in 2001. He later helped oversee the creation of the Transportation Security Administration. 

But even as he developed policy expertise in transportation and founded the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focused on intermodal surface transportation, his work for formerly incarcerated Japanese Americans became a legacy. 

Higuchi, whose parents were imprisoned at Heart Mountain, likened the reaction to Mineta’s death among Japanese Americans to the death of Martin Luther King Jr. among Black Americans.

“A lot of marginalized communities look to certain leaders to guide the way,” Higuchi said. “And then when you lose a leader you don't, you don't really know where to go from there.”

Survivors and descendants of the 10 camps have for decades traveled back to the sites during annual pilgrimages. 

When he would come back to Heart Mountain, Mineta didn’t do anything special, Higuchi said.

“He stood up like every other ordinary Japanese American and talked about the importance of preservation,” she said. 

“Norm was like every other person,” she added. “What made Norm Mineta great, was because he was like everyone else, and he made everyone else feel like they were at home.”