President Bill Clinton signs the Asian/Pacific American Heritage Awareness Proclamation on May 3, 1993, joined by (from left) Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Rep. Norman Mineta (D-San Jose), Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Sacramento). (Associated Press)

JACL is deeply saddened to hear of the passing of former Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, a true trailblazer in not only the Japanese American community but throughout the Asian American community and beyond.

Secretary Mineta, known affectionately as “Uncle Norm,” was known for many things, including being the first Asian American Cabinet member, first under President Clinton and later President Bush. He was a 10-term congressman, a former mayor, a champion for Japanese American redress, and campaigned for the passage of the ADA.

It was during his time as secretary of transportation under President Bush that Secretary Mineta shared his story of incarceration as a 10-year-old boy in Heart Mountain, Wyoming that helped shape the response by President Bush and others following the Sept. 11 attacks. Through all his work, he was also a truly supportive member of JACL and a staple of the organization.

Secretary Mineta was a hero and a pillar in our community. He fought for civil liberties at the highest levels of government and remained a steadfast beacon of activists throughout his long career. Members of our community remember him as a patriot and a friend who fought to make sure that America lived up to the ideals of justice that it promises.

His kindness and warmth helped to uplift those who he mentored and assisted throughout his time with the JACL. We are left shocked and saddened by his passing, and we know that the JACL will not be the same without his guidance, leadership, and compassion.

However, we at the JACL will continue to strive to protect his ideals and legacy, and continue to devote our efforts toward the values of freedom and equality that Secretary Mineta held, and the goals and aspirations that he shared with us for our community and its future.

Secretary Mineta was unwavering in his support of the JACL over the years; he never stopped showing up in any way he could. Just last year, Secretary Mineta was named honorary chair of the Centennial Education Fund, in which he lent his voice and backing in ensuring future generations live in a more just and tolerant world. Secretary Mineta’s deep involvement with the mission and values of the JACL led to the establishment of the Norman Y. Mineta Fellowship in 2007. 

As painful as this loss is being felt in our community, we know that his wife Deni and his large extended family whom he loved so dearly are especially feeling this loss. We hope that knowing of the tremendous outpouring of love and support from so many across the country offers some comfort. At this time we join them in grieving the loss of a great American and an even better friend.

Jeffrey Moy, JACL national president, recalled, “I first met Secretary Mineta, then-congressman, as a child in a chance encounter at a local hardware store in Maryland. I never imagined that years later I would be lucky enough for our paths to cross again and again, whether at various events in Washington, D.C., or at JACL conventions. That so many others undoubtedly feel the same way underscores how important Norm was to our community and the impact he had across generations, whether through the various political positions he served or as a great friend and supporter of JACL.

“I will forever remember how he championed civil rights, working across the aisle with class and dignity, willing to listen but never straying from his core values. While his loss is immeasurable, his mentorship and support of our community leave an everlasting legacy for all of us to carry forward.”

Floyd Mori, former JACL national president and executive director, stated, “Norm Mineta and his encouraging spirit will be sorely missed in the AANHPI community. He was one of a kind who was a shining star yet he served others willingly without question. He was a mentor and supporter of all that I did during the past 50 years. He was a dear friend who influenced my life always for the better. Our love and condolences to his family.”

Michelle Amano, former JACL VP of general operations and former governor, Eastern District Council, shared, “One of the stories I remember about my Uncle Norm was during a PSW (Pacific Southwest District) fundraising dinner. Uncle Norm had taken time on Sunday after the dinner to meet with the NYSC (National Youth/Student Council) board. We started by going around the room and introducing ourselves. He wanted to see where each of the board members resided.

“This to me showed how Uncle Norm wanted to help foster the leadership of tomorrow and encourage them to pursue their goals or dreams. This is what he did by being a giant within the community. What he achieved in his life proved that anything is possible when you put your mind to it.”

John Tateishi, former JACL executive director and former chair JACL National Redress Committee, said, “As the nation mourns the passing of Norm Mineta for his many contributions in his lifetime of public service, we in the community feel his loss on a deeply personal level and recognize that we have lost one of the best among us. Despite all his many achievements and national stature, Norm remained humble and never forgot his roots in the community and opened the portal through which hundreds of Asian Americans have passed to run for public office.

“And having worked with Norm for several years on the redress campaign, I know that he was a driving force of the JACL’s redress effort even before we took the campaign public, and I know too that his leadership and dedication were instrumental in the success of the campaign. There would not have been redress without Norm Mineta, of that I am absolutely certain.”

Tom Oshidari and Sharon Uyeda, co-presidents of the San Jose JACL, said, “We extend heartfelt condolences to the Mineta family. Norm leaves a legacy that began in his hometown of San Jose, where he became the first Asian American to be elected mayor of a major city, to the indelible mark he left in Washington, D.C., as a Cabinet member for both President Clinton and President Bush. We are proud to have had Norm as an honorary advisor of the San Jose Chapter for many years. Beyond his many achievements, Norm will be remembered also for his positive attitude and his remarkable ability to remember names of people he had met.”

Karen Narasaki, former JACL Washington representative and former commissioner, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said, “Our country has lost an extraordinary public servant, patriot, and civil rights leader. As the JACL Washington representative, I had the honor of working with Secretary Mineta first on an amendment to the Civil Liberties Act to ensure that everyone who qualified for redress would be able to receive it.

“He was a brilliant legislative strategist. He also helped to ensure that the bilingual ballot provisions of the Voting Rights Act were not only reauthorized but expanded – one of the reasons why so many more Asian Americans are able to vote and so many more Asian Americans are getting elected to office 30 years later.

“That same year, I was given the assignment of asking him to address the JACL convention in Utah on the issue of marriage equality. The ask was only to remind JACL members how Congressman Barney Frank had moved redress out of his committee,  but Mineta insisted on taking a strong position supporting the right for same-sex couples to marry. His speech is one of the reasons JACL maintained its historic position by a handful of votes. He told me that a good congressman should be willing to risk losing donors and an election to be on the right side of history.

“I sat in meetings with him when he was secretary of transportation, after 9/11, with members of the South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Muslim communities, experiencing discrimination at airports where he committed to reminding the airlines of their obligations not to discriminate and am certain that Mineta is one of the reasons that President Bush made an early visit to a mosque to try to stem the backlash.

“Through it all, he mentored thousands of community leaders, young elected officials, and federal appointees. He was generous with his wisdom, with his time, and with his friendship.”

Paul Igasaki, former JACL Washington representative. stated, “I am devastated to hear that our friend and hero Norm Mineta passed today. Our deepest sympathies are with Deni and the rest of his family. Norm was a towering public servant and he was one of the most genuine politicians I ever knew. 

“I was first impressed with him when I was in Chicago and he spoke at a JACL event as a new congressman, the first Japanese American from the mainland. Later, he would be the first Asian Cabinet secretary. He fought for Asian Americans and truly any needing justice throughout his career. Japanese Americans have always been proud of him and he never let us down, including carrying the heaviest burdens in seeking justice for the concentration camps that he and our families endured. He intervened before it was ‘acceptable’ pushing the JACL to take a stand for LGBTQ rights.

“When Lou and I were working for JACL, any initiative I took on the Hill was guided by Norm’s wisdom. As an Asian presidential appointee, Norm was always our model and our leader.

“He also had a natural sense of humor. He took Lou and I out when we arrived in D.C. as JACL’s lobbying team and regaled us with Beltway jokes. Ironically, he disproved two of them throughout our relationship. ‘You can tell your friends in D.C. — they stab you in the chest’ and ‘If you need a friend in D.C., get a dog.’

“Norm was a patriot and friend to all of us, beyond ethnicity and race, political party, gender, or sexual orientation. If we honor him, we will try to steer his nation towards the fairness and goodness that were so much a part of his being.”

Bob Sakaniwa, who now serves as the director of policy and advocacy at APIAVote, stated, “When I first came to Washington, D.C. I was a legislative assistant to a freshman member of Congress. But as luck would have it, my boss was on the House Public Works and Transportation Committee as Secretary Mineta was becoming chairman of that committee. After meeting him just once at a committee hearing he always remembered my name and took time to speak with me. I soon learned, he listened to and respected everyone whether a congressional staffer or high government official. He treated everyone with dignity.

“I watched in awe as I saw him establish, with his fellow colleagues, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Secretary Mineta was always available to provide the history and context to issues JACL was fighting for, whether it was funding for the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund or justice for Japanese Latin Americans. Secretary Mineta was the rare political leader who reached the highest positions in public service and yet never lost his connection to his community.

“There will always be two distinct phases of D.C. political life for me, the one with Secretary Mineta and now the one where we must continue his legacy.”

Kristine Minami, former JACL director for public policy (Washington representative) and former governor, Eastern District Council shared, “The Honorable Norman Y. Mineta was the paragon of an honorable man and of honor in service. He was devoted to his family, his friends, and his country, and he spent a lifetime working on behalf of all three. He was a man whose actions were always borne of conscience, integrity, and kindness. 

“He understood that his accomplishments were built on the foundation laid by those who came before him, and he made sure that any doors he opened stayed open for those who followed. Simply, his vision and leadership changed the landscape of the nation. He knew that politics and policy do not have to be partisan and that diversity of thought does not have to equate to divisiveness of action. He was generous and principled in everything he did. He valued everyone, and he amplified the voices of those who often went unheard. If you met him once, he remembered you.

“He truly made the world a better place, in a million different ways — from ensuring access rights for individuals with disabilities to championing the civil rights of the LGBTQ and other communities to securing an apology and reparations for Japanese Americans incarcerated during WWII, to myriad accomplishments in the field of transportation, to name a few. He was an exceptional man and incomparable leader, one in a million. He built the road for us to continue forward progress, and he will be sorely missed. Thanks a million, Norm.”

David Inoue, JACL executive director, recalls, “Secretary Mineta was well known for his leadership in the Japanese American and Asian American community, especially with JACL. What I will remember most was at an event where everyone, as always, wanted to talk to him, but he took the time to pull my then eight-year-old son aside and spoke with him at length with all his attention. It was this warmth that guided Secretary Mineta throughout his career and made him such a great mentor to so many people.

“He often spoke of how important the words ‘American citizen’ were to him, and he provided us all with a model of how to be the best possible.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.