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Mineta, Cabinet's Sole Democrat, Quits

June 24, 2006|Johanna Neuman and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Norman Y. Mineta, the only Democrat in President Bush's Cabinet, has resigned as secretary of Transportation, the White House said Friday.

In a letter to Bush, Mineta, 74, said that after "over five productive and memorable years, it is time for me to move on to other challenges."

Mineta became the first Asian American to serve in the Cabinet when President Clinton named him secretary of Commerce in Clinton's final year in office. Mineta stayed on in the Bush administration to work on transportation, a personal interest during a 30-year career in Congress.

His departure leaves two secretaries from the original Bush Cabinet: Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.

In a capital riven by partisanship, Mineta was fond of saying, "There are no Democratic or Republican highways, no such thing as Republican or Democratic traffic congestion."

Mineta was head of the Transportation Department on Sept. 11, 2001, when all civilian planes were grounded for the first time ever.

In a written statement Friday, Bush said Mineta performed "a crucial role" that day, "leading the successful effort to bring tens of thousands of passengers aboard commercial aircraft to safe landings."

Bush also said, "After Hurricane Katrina, Norm and his team were able to rapidly repair and reopen the region's major highways, airports, seaports and pipelines," Bush said.

Mineta is the longest-serving Transportation secretary in history, Bush noted.

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, announcing the resignation Friday, said Mineta "was not pushed out."

"As a matter of fact, the president and the vice president and others were happy with him," Snow said. "He put in 5 1/2 years -- that's enough time."

Mineta's resignation letter, dated Tuesday, said he was proud that his department, within a year of the Sept. 11 attacks, had established the Transportation Security Administration. He also praised a little-known aspect of the Transportation Department's work: helping to rebuild the transportation infrastructure in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A native of San Jose, Mineta was 10 when he and his family were imprisoned in a U.S. internment camp during World War II. About 120,000 Japanese Americans were held in such camps while the United States was at war with Japan.

Wearing his Cub Scout uniform and carrying a baseball mitt and bat (which officials confiscated), Mineta was taken to a holding facility at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia before being transported to a camp in Wyoming. Years later, he joked that the experience allowed him to take a shower with legendary racehorse Seabiscuit.

After the war, the Japanese American community in California decided to protect against future persecution by grooming politicians. Mineta was one of their first success stories.

After graduating from UC Berkeley, Mineta joined the Army in 1953, serving as an intelligence officer in Japan and Korea. He served on the San Jose City Council and in 1971 became mayor, the first Asian American to run a major U.S. city.

As mayor, Mineta advocated local control of transportation decisions, a philosophy that would guide his career.

San Jose's population surged between 1972 and 1974, and Mineta and other local officials focused on seven projects to relieve congestion. But the state, which controlled the city's share of gasoline tax money, had other ideas.

Mineta vowed to change top-down transportation laws as soon as he could.

He joined Congress in 1975 and won a spot on the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, becoming chairman in 1992. He was an author of the landmark Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, which shifted decisions on highway and mass transit planning to state and local governments. The legislation led to surges in mass transit ridership and greener transportation options, like bike paths.

Mineta was the driving force behind a bill in which the United States government officially apologized for injustices endured by Japanese Americans during World War II and paid $20,000 to each victim.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Mineta was with Vice President Dick Cheney as the government scrambled to understand what was going on and how to respond to the attacks. Although Mineta did not ground all commercial air traffic that day -- a Federal Aviation Administration manager had the idea and went ahead on his own authority -- the task of rebuilding public confidence in air travel became the secretary's responsibility.

Mineta suffered back and hip problems a few years ago that led some to speculate he would retire after Bush's first term, but aides said he recovered.

"He keeps days that are longer than anyone on the staff," said his press secretary, Robert Johnson.

Mineta worked for Lockheed Martin Corp. after he left Congress in 1995. Johnson said Mineta expected to return to the private sector and would announce his plans after he left office.

His resignation is effective July 7.

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