Norman Mineta as Mayor and Legislator

Some parts of the life story of Norman Mineta, who passed away this week at the age of 90, are nationally famous – how his family’s forcible WWII internment at a relocation camp in Wyoming resulted in his Boy Scout friendship with future Senator Alan Simpson, or how he, as the new Secretary of Transportation, wound up in the underground bunker with Dick Cheney on 9/11 and had to give the unprecedented “ground stop” order forcing every airliner over the U.S. to land as soon as possible.

But between those events, Mineta had a 28-year career as an elected official who had a major influence on local and national transportation issues.

Mineta was elected the mayor of his home town of San Jose, California in 1971 after a five-year stint on the City Council, becoming the first Asian-American mayor of a major U.S. city. (An Asian-American mayor of San Jose does not sound unusual today, now that Asians are the largest ethnic group in the city (38.2 percent in the 2020 Census), but back in the 1970 Census, they constituted only 2.7 percent of the city’s population.)

As such, he was mayor when the surrounding Santa Clara County voted, in June 1972, to form the Santa Clara County Transit District, to take over the operations of the three failing for-profit bus companies serving the area. County voters had voted down two previous referenda establishing the transit district, in 1969 and 1970, but with Mineta’s support, the measure finally passed. The old Transit District is now the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA).

Mineta himself also wanted the city and county to join BART, the San Fransisco-Oakland transit agency. Though this never happened, the VTA is now in the process of building its own extension to connect to the BART rail system.

Norm Mineta then ran for Congress in 1974, taking a formerly Republican seat, and became a member of the House of Representatives in January 1975 and left in 1995. This time period, not coincidentally, was the one time period in our history where Congressional rules allowed subcommittee chairmen a lot of power. The House had adopted the “Subcommittee Bill of Rights” in late 1974, providing that subcommittee chairmen could hire their own staff and that bills had to be referred to subcommittee and could not easily be discharged without a subcommittee markup. As a result, it was the subcommittee chairman, not the full committee chairman, who took the lead on bill drafting. (This has long been the practice in the Appropriations Committees, but not on any other committees.)

When Mineta came in as a freshman, he was 18th on the Democratic seniority list, ahead of eight others (including Jim Oberstar, who was doomed to be behind Mineta forever in the seniority rolls because Mineta had already been a mayor and Oberstar had never been an elected official).

By the 97th Congress (1981-1982), Mineta had already risen to 5th in seniority on the Democratic side of the committee and had risen high enough to chair the Subcommittee on Aviation (at the cost of having to quit the Surface Transportation Subcommittee temporarily). As such, he was the chairman who got the Airport Improvement Program established in 1982, combining the old Airport Development Aid Program with the old Planning Grant Program. (Unsurprisingly, the San Jose airport is named for Mineta.)

Jim Howard’s fatal heart attack in 1988 shifted the gavels on the committee and allowed Mineta to chair the Surface Transportation Subcommittee. In this capacity, Mineta worked hand-in-hand with Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) to draft and enact the landmark Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991.

ISTEA, as it was known, empowered local officials to make many more transportation decisions than they had been allowed to before with federal dollars, and aimed to make it easier for local officials to choose mass transit instead of additional highway capacity. ISTEA also created a new program designed to work with the Clean Air Act amendments that Moynihan had written the previous year to reduce smog in the air in urban areas through congestion mitigation (and, often, through more mass transit).

Bob Roe’s retirement at the end of 1992 allowed Mineta to finally end his 18-year ladder climb and become chairman of the full Public Works and Transportation Committee. But the multi-year cyclical nature of surface transportation and aviation reauthorizations meant that the committee wasn’t called on to produce much major legislation during that Congress (and the attention of the new President was on the economy and health care, to the exclusion of all else during those first two years).

Then, the GOP took back the House for the first time in 40 years, and Mineta was relegated to being ranking minority member of the newly renamed Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. (The GOP also largely neutered subcommittee chairmen and, by so doing, also made subcommittee ranking minority members less important.) He was able to negotiate the National Highway System Designation Act of 2005 with his GOP and Senate counterparts prior to leaving Congress for greener pastures late that year.

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