People line the streets of San Jose to show their appreciation and support as Norman Mineta’s funeral procession passed through his beloved hometown. (Photo: Courtesy of Ron Ikejiri)
Friends give cheers to the humanity of Norman Mineta.
By P.C. Staff
When Norman Yoshio Mineta died at 90 just over a year ago on May 3, the United States lost a trusted, admired and beloved public servant.
The news articles and tributes rightly touted his many achievements — Mineta was the first Asian American mayor of a major city on the U.S. mainland (San Jose), he was elected in 1975 to the House of Representatives to represent his district in the state of California and was later appointed to serve on the Cabinet under a Democrat and then a Republican — Presidents Bill Clinton as secretary of commerce and George W. Bush as secretary of transportation, respectively.
Furthermore, he received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006, and his hometown’s airport is named after him. On May 9, the Department of Transportation’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., will be renamed the William T. Coleman Jr. and Norman Y. Mineta Federal Building, to honor, respectively, the nation’s first African American and first Asian American to be in charge of that agency.
In the Japanese American community, Mineta was, of course, one of the four Nikkei congressmen, along with Sen. Daniel Inouye and Sen. Spark Matsunaga and Rep. Robert Matsui, to help redress become a reality in 1988. He was also an active member of such community organizations as the Japanese American National Museum, which he served first as its board of governors chair and later, its board of trustees chair, and the U.S.-Japan Council, which he served as vice-chair of its board of councilors.
As noteworthy as those achievements are, there was also a very human side to Mineta of which the general public may not have known — but was nevertheless apparent to those who knew and worked with him on a personal level. There were aspects to his persona that made him unique, empathetic and memorable.
Not only did Mineta have an impish sense of humor, but he also had a preternatural ability to connect with people by remembering names and details of those he encountered years earlier — an invaluable ability for anyone in politics.
It is from that perspective that the Pacific Citizen has compiled the recollections and anecdotes of those who worked with Norman Mineta over the decades.
Mike Honda, House of Representatives for California’s 15th district (2001-13) and 17th district (2013-17): In his first few months of being a mayor, I was the campus ombudsman at San Jose State, and he came to the cafeteria in a wheelchair. I said, “Norm, what are you doing?” and he says, “You know, I just wanted to understand what it felt like and what people in wheelchairs go through in getting around the city.”
As a result of that, he understood that crossing streets was difficult because you had curbs. So, when people see curb cuts, that’s what Norm did. When he became secretary of transportation, and he wrote that first bill called ISTEA, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Equity Act, and he put in there requirements for bikes, bike lanes, trails for hikers and horseback and bikers. And also curb cuts.
Little things like that are just things that people don’t really think about on a daily basis.
Ron Wakabayashi, former JACL national director, former executive director of the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations and former Western regional director of the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service: The experience that has always stood out to me was I had lunch with him in the House dining room and just the way he spoke to the waitstaff and the way they greeted him with real affection.
After we have lunch, he gets a call, and he says, “Ron, I’m gonna have to run. You go ahead and finish up.”
The waitstaff was around there, and one of them approached me and he says, “You know, your friend is the nicest man in the Congress.” I say, “Yeah, I don’t doubt that. But I don’t know all the people in the Congress.” He says, “Well, we do because they all come eat here, and he’s the only one that asks us about our families and actually knows the names of all our family members.”
I think that reflects the core of who he was. I mean, he was thoughtful and considerate of the waitstaff in a real deep way. That’s the Norm story that stands out to me.
John Tateishi, former JACL national redress chair, national redress director and national executive and author, “Redress: The Inside Story of the Successful Campaign for Japanese American Reparations”: He was not at all full of himself, nor was he impressed by the fact that others had such respect for him. When I knew Norm, he was in the House and hadn’t been there all that long, maybe four years, five years. But already, he was seen by his colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats, as a rising star in the House, and people used to talk about him as the future speaker of the House — and this is at a time when it really meant something to be speaker … someone who really garnered a lot of respect from colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
Ron Wakabayashi, who had begun this program to build up relationships between Japanese Americans and the Japanese leadership in Japan, was able to get this program started where a delegation of Sanseis would go to Japan and meet with the leadership in the government, starting with the prime minister and down through the cabinet.
One delegation had gone as a sort of pilot, and Ron asked me to go on the second delegation as a delegation leader.
There were those … who said that it was a huge mistake, that I would be seen as an agent of Japan if I did this, which I thought was so absurd. … Keep in mind this is during the time when we had a huge trade war with Japan going on.
So, I’d gone to Norm’s office to work with Glenn Roberts, his legislative director, on rewriting this new bill that we’re going to have reintroduced as the redress bill, 442. We were struggling with a title, and we came up with something, and then we went in to talk to Norm. And he says, “Hey, what’s this about you being an agent for Japan?” and I explained that it was just a bunch of hogwash.
After the meeting was over, as we’re walking out the door, he says, “Hey, John,” with this really serious look on his face, and then he cracks this big smile and says, “Give Hirohito my regards.” That’s the kind of guy he was.
Debra Nakatomi, owner, Nakatomi & Associates, and co-producer, “Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story”: I first met Norm when I was working at national headquarters of JACL in the late ’70s, and it was in the very early days of redress. Norm was in Congress, and I was a very, very young staffer at JACL in those days. I met Norm at that point, and I never even dreamed that I would have any connection with him later on. Of course, years and years later, I reconnected with him on many occasions and then ended up co-producing with Dianne Fukami this documentary on his life and career, which was really a great experience.
Something that really struck me about Norm was that his capacity for recall was just astounding. It was maybe a few years later that I had had seen Norm again at a JACL convention. He remembered that he had met me at JACL, and he remembered that I was from Sacramento. I had seen him do that over many years that we were working with him on the documentary. We saw that occur with him, whether it was in San Jose, or in D.C., that he remembered time and place where he met people. And we would see people just be totally astounded that he even remembered their names, let alone little tidbits about their background.
We came to realize that that was the hallmark of Norm. With a twinkle in his eye, he would say, “You know, I was in insurance, and it was really important for us to know people and know their names and their background.”
There was this warmheartedness about him. Later on, I would hear him telling stories about how important your name is — your name is your integrity. He was really interested in people and their stories, and I think that was one of his superpowers. In some ways, it could be very disarming. And in other ways, it’s the mark of a really kind of special human being.
John Tateishi: The remarkable thing about Norm is that he never forgot a name and a face. Norm and Harry Kitano and I were featured as speakers at this event, which was sponsored by the JACL in Detroit. Afterwards, they had this reception for us, and my being the junior member of the three of us, I got in line first, and then Norm and then Harry. I’ve been in Detroit several times, but I didn’t have that knack of remembering names and faces, and people would come up and they’d say, “Hey, John, it’s really nice to see you again,” and I’m standing there trying to remember, “Who was this person?”
Norm nudges me and says, “Hey, trade places with me.” So, Norm is standing first in line. People would come up, and he would know them by name. There was this one woman, she was a small, older Nisei woman who came up, shook his hand and said, “Hi, congressman, you wouldn’t remember me,” and he said, “Of course, I remember you, Michi! It’s been a long time, it’s really great to see you. And how’s your sister? Did she get over her whatever it was, and how’s your dog?”
They had this really wonderful conversation. I’m next, and she comes over and says, “That’s remarkable. I met him for about 10 minutes about five years ago. Wow.” I said, “Well, that’s because you’re so memorable.” But he would do that with anyone he met. He would meet you for like five minutes — and he’d remember you forever.
Mike Honda: He said one time to me, “The people you want to make friends with are the janitor and the secretary. You know, why, Mike?” I said, “Why?” “Because they’ve got the keys to the bathroom.”
What that really meant was, if you need to get into some place, and you have no access, the janitor or the secretary will be able to get you in. You don’t need to know the CEO. I’ve always remembered that. Anytime I got a promotion, or I visited someplace when I was a congressman, I’d always go to the waitstaff, go to the kitchen and talk to them.
When Obama first became president, we had a Democratic retreat. I went into the kitchen, and I saw it was mostly Latinos and some Indo Americans in the waitstaff and the kitchen staff, and a lot of Black folks, too.
I said, “You know the president is coming?” “Yeah, we know, but we won’t be able to see him.” So, I told the manager, “You should have your waitstaff lined up outside, along the wall where we’re being served and let the president just go right down the line and thank them.” I watched that happen. It was really cool. Those are the kinds of lessons that Norm sort of taught, but I don’t think he said these things to impress anybody. He just shared those ideas and values.
Ronald K. Ikejiri, Esq., JACL Washington representative, 1978-84, Gardena, Calif. City Council member, 2001-13 and Gardena mayor pro tem, 2004-05, 2008-09 and 2011-13: In the summer of 1978, I was a house guest of the Mineta family in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I was just appointed as the JACL Washington representative and was searching for a place to live. Every summer, May, David and Stuart would return to San Jose during the summer months, and I was fortunate to be asked to be a house sitter.
More than a place to stay, it was actually a postgraduate first-hand Introduction to Mineta Politics 101. Congress was in session during those summer months, so Norm and I acted like the “Boys of Summer,” and I learned so much by watching and listening to Norm as he took on his leadership role in the House and representing his San Jose constituency.
Norm taught me the importance of that within 24 hours of meeting someone, you send a letter to acknowledge and thank them for their kindness to meet with them in person. This was before the age of email and internet, so it was a real typewritten letter and sent with a stamp.
Perhaps the most memorable image that I have of Norm is that when I would come “home,” and Norm would be sitting in the JFK Rocker with a table across the chair arms and signing letters to constituents. Norm had a distinctive style. He would cross out the typed name on the letter, write in the first name in blue ink and at the bottom write, “Thanks a Million!”
In June of 2022, along the memorial route through San Jose to honor Norm, there is a picture of a constituent holding a homemade handwritten poster. It read: ”Thanks a Million.” I smiled. Yes, Norm. “Thanks a Million!”