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The Federal Coach

Norm Mineta: Arm-wrestling with Tom DeLay

Deborah Hersman
Norman Mineta served in Cabinets of both Republican and Democratic presidents. Under President George W. Bush, he served for more than five years as the Secretary of Transportation, and during his tenure, Mineta guided the creation of the Transportation Security Administration after the September 11th terrorist attacks. For almost thirty years, Mineta represented San Jose, Calif., first on the city council, then as mayor, and from 1975 to 1995 as a member of Congress. In July 2006, he joined Hill & Knowlton as vice chairman.

Can you reflect on your experience being the lone Democrat in the Bush administration?

The fact that I had a "D" after my name was not in any way a liability. My problem was more being a Californian in a sea of Texans. When I first talked to President Bush about being secretary, the three things I talked about were budget, policy and personnel. On budget, he said I would need to arm-wrestle the director of the Office of Management and Budget along with everybody else: "Stand in line, Norm." On policy and personnel, he said, "You're the subject-matter expert, and I will lean toward you on that."

What lessons learned can you share with federal leaders about how to handle a crisis?

After the September 11th tragedy, I had to put together a workforce of 65,000 in one year to create the Transportation Security Administration -- the largest mobilization of a new federal agency since World War II.

The Transportation Security Act was not signed until November 17th, and part of that was an arm wrestle between Tom DeLay and me. Tom wanted to contract it out, and I said, "Tom, we are dealing with the security and the safety of our country, and I'm not going to contract this out. We should have uniform procedures -- so that whether a person is on an airplane in Little Rock, San Francisco or wherever -- Americans should go through the same regimen everywhere. I am not going to do it with contractors."

Now, we didn't just begin lining people up in 429 commercial airports. We had four corporations who helped us out, who loaned us executives. I called Disney and asked, "Can you help us queue people up?" So they said sure. We asked Marriott to come in and help us training people. The companies responded very, very well at the time.

What skills did you bring to the table at the Transportation Department that allowed you to build successful relationships and get things done?

I never let it get to my head that I was running a department of 62,000 people with a $62 billion-dollar budget. You have to listen to the professionals who are doing the work. You have to question them about whether or not they're on solid ground and whether or not this is good public policy. It does take a lot of questioning, so I think you have to be foremost a good listener. Then use what you've heard to get a sense of program objectives, the available financial resources, and the capability to bring the project or matter to successful conclusion.

How did you successfully engage your employees at the Transportation Department?

Whenever I had a meeting with staff from the various modes within the department, I always had someone from the budget and legal offices sit in on these meetings, because I wanted to convey to our assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries and others how important I think their work is to accomplishing the mission.

How did your childhood experience being imprisoned in a Japanese American internment camp during World War II affect you as a leader and your leadership style?

I was a little over 10 years old when Pearl Harbor was struck. I watched the impact on my parents, older sisters, and brother. As Japanese Americans, we were trying to talk to mayors and state legislators and members of Congress, but none of them would listen or talk to Japanese Americans. They were about as popular as a skunk in a garden. When I became a member of the city council, a mayor and a member of Congress, I always felt I had a responsibility to listen to those who might not otherwise have a voice.

By Tom Fox

 |  June 9, 2010; 10:31 AM ET |  Category:  View from the Top Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Key word in DC is "Contract Out"= code for line the pockets of friends and political contributors, it is no wonder were in a mess on both sides of the isle and White House that being a mentality. Change, Change Change, however no Political Will to do so. Like the last question asked unless it popular no traction and reason for change, unless.............................

Posted by: gordon9 | June 10, 2010 1:19 PM

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