the fixers
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Kojima An Interview with Norman Mineta, April 1997


Mineta was a Democratic congressman for twenty-one years, representing California's 15th District. He chairs the Asian Pacific American Caucus Institute, a research group dealing with issues of concerns to Asian Pacific Americans. He also is a senior vice president at Lockheed Martin. In 1971, Mineta was elected mayor of San Jose, becoming the first Japanese American mayor of a major U.S. city

Q: How has the work of the Asian Pacific American Caucus Institute been affected by this campaign finance controversy?

We probably won't know until we have our dinner on the May 7th, our annual gala. President Clinton spoke at the other two dinners that we had. But this year he will be on his travels to South America.

We also invited Vice President Gore and Majority Leader Trent Lott .

Q: So you don't really know what the level of support will be among members of the Democratic Party?

No. But in January we had an Asian Pacific American Inaugural Ball. We expected about 500 people; but on the night of the ball, we had over 1,200. A lot were people motivated by the anti-Asian bashing and they decided to show some solidarity by coming to D.C. to show that they were concerned about what was going on.

Q: Are people in the Asian American community becoming more outspoken because of the Asian bashing?

I think they're looking for direction. To see who will be responding on their behalf. Part of the problem is that...many of the violations that have occurred are by Asian donors and not by Asian Pacific Americans. And people are not making the distinction between Asian Pacific American and Asian donors. The stories are ones where Asian Pacific Americans, immigrants, and foreigners are lumped together. So Americans of Asian ancestry are feeling victimized.

And I can relate to that because as an American of Japanese ancestry, in 1941, 1942, people couldn't make the distinction between the person who was flying the airplane attacking Pearl Harbor and Americans of Japanese ancestry who happened to be living in Washington, Oregon and California. And we ended up in camps.

One time [more recently], I spoke at an event and this very highly placed corporate executive came up to me and thanked me for attending the event and said, "I want to commend you for how well you speak English. How long have you been living in our country?"

Now he knew I was a member of Congress because he addressed me as Congressman Mineta...

This was in 1991, I believe it was. I don't think he heard in my voice anything that had an accent to it. But in my face he saw somebody he considered foreign.

And now, again, what we see in the press, is the makings of what created the Chinese Exclusion Act of the 1890s, and the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924. And then to have, on top of that, the National Review magazine cover of this gross racial stereotypical characterization being applied to Vice President Gore, President Clinton and Mrs. Clinton. Are black faces permitted today? Absolutely not. Why? Because publications are afraid of the uproar that would cause in the African American community.

So now do they think they can get away with doing this to the Asian Pacific American community, just because it was complacent in the past?

One of the things I did soon after Senator D'Amato did that sing-songy characterization of Judge Ito--and Judge Ito has never spoken with any accent or sing-songy way of speaking--I called a press conference to go after Senator D'Amato because he should have known better, being from an easily identifiable ethnic group. Things like this have to be attacked and dealt with right away. Otherwise people get the idea, Well it must be okay to say this or do that.

And this isn't a question of being politically correct. It's a question of decency. I mean, why is it that we are considered foreign? It just blows my mind. I remember when Admiral Ming Chang got a call from a reporter one day, and he was recounting that the reporter asked him if he was a U.S. citizen. He says, Yes he was. "Were you born here?" "No, I came to the United States in 1950 as a young boy from Shanghai." "And so, what did you do to get your citizenship?" And he says, "I was naturalized." "What proof do you have of your citizenship?" He says, "Well, young man, I served for 33 years in the United States Navy and came out a Rear Admiral, and I am now a very high ranking officer of the Raytheon International Corporation."

On top of that, when the DNC wanted to investigate all of the Asian Pacific American donations in excess of $5,000, they turned it over to Ernst & Young. They conducted their investigation and essentially asked four questions: Are you a U.S. citizen? Can we have your social security number? Would you sign a credit information release form? And fourth, do you have the financial capability to give this kind of donation and prove it?

Then they said, "If you don't cooperate, we will release your names to the media."

That kind of blackmailing is totally unnecessary. The DNC contributed to this whole anti-Asian bashing by taking this approach. Now, did they do this with the Martinezes, the Gonzaleses, the Rubinskys, the Rubensteins, the MacDougals? I don't think so. They did it only with Asian-surnamed donors in excess of $5,000. That is totally unacceptable, to cover up their own shortcomings by vetting just Asian Pacific American donors.

Q: If you had been heading the DNC's investigation, how would you have handled it?

First of all, I wouldn't have turned it over to an outside agency. They should have been doing it internally in the first place. When you have these donations, there is a form that has to be completed. With name, address, employer, all of this. In terms of whether a donation comes from a Linda Jue or from Pauline Kanchanalak (one of the donors under investigation), people within the Asian Pacific American unit within the DNC ought to have had enough smarts to make that distinction. That is part of their job.

Q:Would you have broadened the investigation out from the Asian American community to just improper donations in general?

Well, the question is, on what basis do you suspect every Asian Pacific American donor as compared to anybody else?

Q: In this case, they are talking about the specific question of foreign influence. With the Riadys and...

Yes. But who is the biggest foreign influence in the United States in terms of ownership of assets?

Britain and.... the Dutch. Has anything been done about that or said about that?

Q: There have been news accounts of political positions for Asian Americans being jeopardized by this controversy, and you and Chancellor...

.....Tien.

Q: Yes. From UC-Berkeley, were mentioned as being next in line for cabinet positions. I haven't heard you comment much about that. Why?

Because I wasn't really pursuing the cabinet post.

Q: And what post was that?

For secretary of transportation. But there was an article in the Journal of Commerce on the sixteenth of December... In fact, let me look for it here. There was one short piece in here that says, "Former Representative Norman Mineta...a few weeks ago was on a Washington insider short list of White House candidates for Secretary of Transportation...He is highly respected on both sides of the political aisle...But...talk on the Hill is that administration officials were loathe to name an Asian because of current investigations into questionable Democratic campaign contributions raised by former Commerce official John Huang. There is no link whatsoever between Mr. Mineta and Mr. Huang...Quote, The White House just doesn't want anyone thinking about Asian contributors and John Huang, unquote, one senate staffer said."

Q: You haven't yourself done anything to follow up on this. Would it be bad politics on your part to do that?

Yeah, because I wasn't actively soliciting. On the other hand, if I had been asked, and then it got derailed in this fashion, then it would have been another story.

But the thing that is bothersome is the fact that for years...Asian Pacific Americans have been tapped for their financial resources and encouraged to be active in party affairs and community affairs. But we've never been tapped for our human resources. Just as we get to the point where maybe we're going to be able to sit at the table, something like this happens. All of a sudden, we're knocked out of the box.

Q: Apparently anybody in Washington with an Asian last name isn't getting their phone calls returned, and meetings aren't being set up.

Or even, as I understand it, some politicians are summarily returning contributions from Asian-surnamed individuals.

Q: Now you've formed a group that's kind of the Asian American version of the B'nai B'rith.

Well, I haven't formed it. What I've done is to use existing organizations, like the Organization of Chinese Americans, Japanese American Citizens League, Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Institute, a number of organizations. And to say, "Okay, let's get together and talk about what it is that we think we ought to be doing as a group. And does that include forming an ADL-type of organization?"

As a result of the National Review cover, we had a press conference in front of the Washington office of the National Review opposing their cover and asking for an apology. But of course that wasn't forthcoming.

Q: What other plans have you made?

Basically what the coalition group has done so far is to come up with what you might call a position paper as it relates to all of the stories about the fundraising. Again, we strongly condemn any kind of illegal fundraising activities. But the problem that most of us see is that the kind of bashing that's gone on has really victimized the Asian Pacific American community.

Q: According to the 1990 census, Asian Americans have the largest percentage of wealthy households. Do you think the political parties and candidates have specifically targeted Asian Americans as potential donors?

Well, they've always targeted Asian Pacific Americans. It has never been with Asian donors. But the soft money, the loopholes in the campaign fundraising laws, became a very big way to raise money. But again, these were Asian donors, not Asian Pacific American. I think the most that we ever raised in the past was about $1.4, $1.6 million dollars from the Asian Pacific American community in the United States.

Q: "We" being who?

Any of us who have been involved in the past, whether it was Congressman Bob Matsui, who was, I believe, the '92 campaign chair of the Asian Pacific American Clinton Finance Committee. I've been involved in these activities as well. But we went after solely Asian Pacific Americans in the United States.

You don't see our names attached to any of these efforts by John Huang or Charlie Trie, or John Chung, or any of those folks. The soft money is what drove all this...Look at how much Philip Morris gave to the Republican Party. Corporate contributions are illegal in terms of hard money. But when it comes to soft money, there's no limitation. So naturally they go after those kinds of loopholes.

Q: There have been questions raised about the new wave of Asian American immigrants who arrived since the 1970s. Unlike the Asian Americans here before them, this new generation tends to be better educated and to come from the more affluent classes in Asia. And they tend to have fairly strong ties with their mother countries, whether economically through family businesses, or other kinds of connections. There are questions about where those associations begin to become so fuzzy that you have to look into the backgrounds of some of these people. How would you respond to that?

:Well, there's no question about that. I don't question that at all. But the problem that I see right now is that, with regard to the fundraising practices of the DNC, most of those contributions came from Asian donors, not from Asian Pacific Americans...Now, as you've indicated, the new wave of immigrants from the post-1975 era came with the financial largesse that the native-born Asian Pacific American did not have. But even if you look at those large numbers of US residents or US naturalized citizens, their amount of giving doesn't equal anywhere near what the Asian donors gave through John Huang, Charlie Trie, John Chung, or whoever else might have been a fundraiser.

Q: But when people like John Huang become high-profile, they are seen as representing the entire Asian American community regardless of whether they are citizens, legal residents, or immigrants. No distinction is made between foreign-born Asians and Asian Americans, nor between the older and newer generations of Asian Americans.

Yeah, I suppose part of that is our own fault. Because we, I guess you might say, gloried in their fundraising capabilities. Wondering, "Wow, look what they're able to do." And not realizing where the sources of these monies really emanated from.

Q: Did anybody have any questions about where that money was coming from, especially if the Asian American community didn't have that kind of money?

Again, I met the people through John, [who was hired as an official fundraiser for the DNC] who would say, "This is so-and-so, who just donated $50,000 to the campaign." Most of them were green carders. So you didn't think about it, other than the face value. It wasn't my job [to look into their backgrounds]. The DNC was charged with the responsibility of investigating their donors.

Q: On some level, though, these people did play an important role in furthering Asian-American political participation.

They were successful in terms of making healthy contributions. I'm not sure that anybody can show any benefit anywhere from--I don't know, how much was raised by all of these efforts? Six million? What do we have to show for it? Nothing but grief.

And the wrong interpretation. And the racial stereotyping.

Q: The political participation of American-born Asians over the last two decades - what has been the basic characteristic of that participation up till now?

To me that participation has been without leveraging from any kind of financial contributions. People like Dennis Hayashi, who's head of the Office of Civil Rights at Health and Human Services--or Stewart Ishimaru or Ginger Lew; or over at the FCC, Rochelle Chong--got their positions because of their prior participation in the public sector. These are not people who got there because of their financial contributions...but because of their own work ethic, integrity, and what they have contributed to American society.

Now I've never seen any of these fund raisers--the people who donated large sums of money--ever active in [community] organizations. That's because of the pandering [that's allowed now], because of the loopholes in the campaign laws, because people in office know how important it is to have to raise funds today.

When I was running, I don't think I spent much. Although it was a lot--probably in the area of about $600,000-$700,000 a year for a campaign cycle. And I had a regular, full-time Mineta for Congress Committee Staff that did fund-raising in off-election year or on-year. It was something that we had to do. But compared to my first campaign in 1974, which was somewhere around$130,000.... So, it's just something that is unending today in terms of what people have to do in order to run for political office.

Q: In terms of issues that have been important to Asian Americans over the last decade, which have been of more concern: political or economic?

Oh, probably more along the area of civil rights in order to level the playing field of public policy. Public policy, in many instances, has been tilted against minorities in general, and so Asian Pacific Americans have been trying to make sure that the opportunities that are available for everybody else are going to be equally available for them.

Q:And who has the biggest draw among Asian-Americans today? Is it Democrats or Republicans?

I think it's still Democrats. Asian Pacific Americans did vote most heavily Democratic this time, according to the exit interviews.

Q:Is that because the Democrats were more aggressive in recruiting and doing outreach?

No. I think it was the issues. The Democrats found more receptivity to the issues they supported.

Q: Asian Americans were supporting the Democratic Party all across the board socioeconomically. Do you see a trend there?

Yeah, but I'm not sure that right now that kind of a survey would necessarily hold up. Both parties, I think are sort of "a pox on your house."

Q: Before I end this interview, do you have any final words?

I suppose it's just that we are Americans, and we want to be treated equally like any other Americans and not be considered foreign in our own country, so that the kinds of opportunities that are available are going to be there for people who have these great hopes and aspirations about themselves and for their own children, and their children.

Q: And what would you say to Asian Americans who aren't feeling very encouraged by all this stuff?

Well, I think partially what we have gone through really should fortify our level of activity even more and that we ought not to let what has been going on keep us from participating in community activities. That's still a requirement. We can't stand on the sidelines. Our system requires participation and we ought not to stay away from it, just because of these adversities. And these are the very reasons why we ought to work that much harder. And participate in the mainstream.

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