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Norman Mineta, former San José mayor, congressman, cabinet secretary, dies at 90

Norman “Norm” Yoshio Mineta, who rose from Japanese-American incarceration as a child, to mayor of San José, to Congress, to the highest levels of American politics under multiple U.S. Presidents, died Tuesday at his home in Maryland.

As a politician, Mineta capped two decades of serving South Bay voters in Congress by being named the first Asian-American cabinet secretary under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. As transportation secretary under Bush, Mineta’s actions on and after Sept. 11, 2001, including the unprecedented clearing of U.S. air traffic that day, and overseeing the creation of the Transportation Security Administration, reshaped modern air travel and ushered in a freshly intrusive era of airport security.

Mineta was born in San José Nov. `12, 1931 to Kane Watanabe and Kunisaku Mineta. At age 10, his family and thousands of Japanese-Americans were uprooted and dispatched to incarceration camps far from their homes. Mineta would spend part of his early years incarcerated at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming.

Mineta in 2010 told Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project, that he remembers seeing his father cry only three times in his life:

Once was the seventh of December, because he couldn’t understand why the land of his birth was attacking the land of his heart. The second time was March 29, 1942, when we were on the train, moving out of San José … I looked up, and the seats were facing each other, with my dad and my mother and my sister… I looked up and saw these tears coming down from my dad. The third time was in 1956, when my mother passed away.”

After incarceration, the Mineta family returned to San José. Mineta graduated from Cal, served in the Army, then came back home to work with his father in the insurance business.

In 1967, Mineta said his father warned him about entering politics before accepting an appointment as the first non-white member of the San José city council. He recalls his father telling him:

In Japan, there’s an old adage, that if you’re in politics, you’re going to be like the nail sticking out of the board. And you know what happens to that nail? It always gets hammered? And the question is, are you going to be able to take that hammering?”

After nearly 30 years of hammering in city council, mayoral, and congressional roles, Mineta worked briefly in the private sector before returning to public service as Commerce Secretary under Clinton and then Transportation Secretary under Bush. Mineta was honored when his hometown commemorating the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport in November 2001.

Mayor Sam Liccardo said in a statement that San José has “lost a great champion”:

Norm Mineta gave me my start in public service as an 18-year-old intern … I learned enormously from his calm leadership style, his deadpan humor, and his sincere love for public service. Norm’s legacy is one [of] steadfast defense of our civil liberties, and defense of our nation in the perilous hours of 9/11.”

Mineta was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bush in 2006. He is survived by his second wife, Deni Brantner, his sons David and Stuart, who reside in the Bay Area, and stepsons Robert and Mark Brantner. Mineta and his first wife, May Hinoki, divorced in 1986.

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