Mineta was the reparations hero for Asian Americans
Norman Y. Mineta will forever be remembered as the man who achieved justice for those incarcerated by Japanese internment.
He pushed through reparations in a Republican administration. Reparations, the holy grail of BIPOC.
After Mineta did it under Reagan, it was never reproduced. In hindsight, it looks like a magic trick. But that was not the case. It was just hard work and politics.
That’s why we should all revere the man who died appropriately enough the first week of May, the month now known as Asian American Indian, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. .
Mineta was one of the first congressional boosters to lengthen what was originally a week, then coined it Asia-Pacific American Heritage Month. His death on May 3rd is an important marker of the importance of diversity and representation at the highest levels of government, politics and elective office.
Mineta, who was 90, lived through every major moment in modern Asian American history. For the barriers he broke down and the policies he established, he was simply the father figure to the community. He was Mr. Asian America.
For a short time, I was able to be close to him. At the 103rd Congress in 1993, I was Mineta’s press secretary and speechwriter.
I was at NPR hosting “All Things Considered.” When I left that job, I thought that as a Californian in Washington, I should at least know how democracy works from the inside. Ideally, I thought you could cross the line into the underworld of politics once. You can even cross back where you came from. Once. But Norm was no ordinary politician.
He was the embodiment of Asian America in public life.
He was our hopes and our dreams. Our cries and our sorrows. From when he was an incarcerated Cub with other Japanese Americans during World War II, to when he served in government, Norm was there for all of us.
He was our fighter and our redeemer when he co-sponsored the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which brought justice to internees. More than $1.6 billion has been paid out to 82,200 Japanese Americans, according to The New York Times.
It was always the difference maker. Norm was in the fight to rectify the historic transgression that gives Asian Americans our moral authority to this day.
There were, of course, other Asian American politicians. But few had the career arc of Mineta, who first served locally in 1971 as mayor of San Jose. He was the first Asian American mayor of a major American city.
In 1974 he was first elected to Congress, resigning in 1995 when the divided government began to form with an aggressive GOP led by Newt Gingrich.
But Norm reappeared in government with more Asian American firsts, as Commerce Secretary in the Clinton Cabinet and then Transportation Secretary under GW Bush. Two administrations. Two different parties.
I was not working for him at the time. Neither did I later, when Norm continued to evolve as a Washington player, first at aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, then as vice president of public relations giant Hill+Knowlton.
The standard I knew was the 1993 standard. The popular standard.
The Norm who drove a modest white Dodge Colt, because he wanted an American car. I knew the guy who worked all day, then carried a huge bag of homework to read for the next day. I knew the guy who was in the Civil Liberties Act post-flux triumph, always diligent, persistent, and looking for a way to make things better.
This is what I learned the most about Norm. Remember, this was the early 90s. Washington was getting meaner, more divisive and blocked.
But Norm had friends like the late Republican Senator Alan Simpson. They met as Boy Scouts in Wyoming. One imprisoned, the other free. Later, as members of Congress, they championed a kind of bipartisanship that is rare these days. It was true with others across the aisle. Like the late Rep. Henry Hyde, author of the infamous Hyde Amendment, which denies federal funding for abortions in public programs like Medicaid and Medicare.
Norm was good friends with Hyde. Maybe that’s the political lesson I learned from Mineta. Legislation is one thing, but we are all human beings. And the goal is to turn opponents into friends and keep your friends friends. You keep the channels open. You create new alliances, like the idea of public-private partnerships.
Sounds too Republican for your taste?
The thing is, Mineta was always looking for solutions, working with others to make things better.
It passes as the country is bitterly divided over everything. His life should serve as a playbook on how to preserve the integrity of the fragile nature of our democracy.
Remember Norm Mineta. He was the Democrat who pushed through the reparations in a Republican administration.
Today, that would make him a political Superman. I will remember him as Mr. Asian America.
Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. He writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. You can follow him on Twitter @emilamok