A nod to Democrats and Asian-Americans

Transportation nominee Norman Mineta is a party stalwart, though pro- business.

Viewed from the nation's capital, President-elect George W. Bush's nomination of a Democrat to his Cabinet is only mildly significant in terms of partisan politics.

But viewed from the nation's most Asian city, the selection of prominent Democrat and Asian-American Norman Mineta to be secretary of Transportation is a real air-gulping surprise.

That's because Mr. Mineta is no paper-thin Democrat. He is regarded as a party stalwart, with a track record of fighting for civil rights and opposition to several high-profile Republican initiatives in his home state of California.

Though no parallel is exact, political analysts say his nomination is akin to having a prominent African-American leader like NAACP president Kweisi Mfume join the Bush team.

In short, say several political analysts, the Mineta appointment is a major event in the nation's history of minority politics, representing a move across party lines that is rare for blacks, Hispanics, or Asian-Americans with deep roots in the opposing party.

"Folks are definitely surprised," says Theodore Wang, policy director of Chinese for Affirmative Action in San Francisco. "His stature in the Democratic Party and his moderate-to-progressive views make it surprising."

Mineta already held the distinction of being the first Asian-American to serve in a presidential cabinet. He was named secretary of Commerce last year by President Clinton.

But his nomination for a spot in a Republican administration is evidence of how Asian-American politics differ from that of other minority groups.

A group with new clout

First and foremost, Asian-Americans are only now beginning to exert their influence politically. Historians note that while African-Americans and Hispanics have sought power through the political process, Asian-Americans have traditionally focused their efforts in the economic arena.

But that is changing. One new Asian-American group, called "80-20," came together last year to encourage Asian-Americans to vote in bloc in November's election, to increase their clout.

Yet it is the community's political diversity that has made it something of an anomaly in minority politics. While blacks and Hispanics vote strongly Democratic, Asian-Americans have shown less inclination to line up behind either party.

"The Asian-American community is still very competitive in political terms," says Daphne Kwok, director of the Organization of Chinese-Americans in Washington.

During November's presidential race, for instance, 90 percent of blacks voted Democrat, as did 62 percent of Hispanics, according to exit polls.

Asian-Americans, however, were more evenly split, with 55 percent voting Democrat and 41 percent voting Republican.

In political terms, Mr. Bush's nomination of Mineta is seen as a way to reach out to a minority community that, while small, is rapidly growing and could prove influential for Republicans in states like New York and California.

Widely respected

While the Mineta nomination has generated surprise, it has not brought strong criticism from even the Democratic activists of the Asian-American community.

"Mineta is just so very respected that I think people will give him the benefit of the doubt," says Mr. Wang of Chinese for Affirmative Action.

Mineta grew up in San Jose, Calif., and served as a member of Congress for 20 years. During that time, he became chairman of the powerful House Committee on Public Works and Transportation.

Considered pragmatic and pro-business, Mineta has also been a champion of civil rights for Asian-Americans. He led the fight for legislation in 1988 that provided reparation payments to Japanese-Americans interned in the US during World War II.

"I've never supported him. But I certainly respect him as a member of the community," says Lester Lee, a prominent Asian-American Republican in Silicon Valley.

Slowing a political trend?

Lance Izumi, an analyst with the conservative Pacific Research Institute in California, says Bush is attempting to keep Asian-Americans from drifting into the Democratic ranks, as have other minorities.

While less wedded than other minorities to either party, the newest generation of Asian-American immigrants to the US is showing an increasing Democratic tilt, he says, making Bush's choice a clear attempt to slow that trend.

Mineta honored his party roots in accepting the nomination earlier this week. "I am proud of and committed to my party's principles and its heritage," he said. "However, the campaign is over."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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