Transportation chief holds his own as lone Democrat in Bush cabinet

After just a couple of days on the job, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta--the Bush Cabinet's sole Democrat--faced his first big test. In its preliminary budget outline in January, the Bush Administration planned to cut $331 million from an airport construction program. And as expected, Washington's influential transportation community went berserk. They warned that Bush was undermining perhaps the most significant program from last year's three-year, $40-billion aviation bill and that he was doing it at a time when Americans were becoming increasingly frustrated with jam-packed airports and long flight delays.

Mineta flew to the rescue. He told Mitch Daniels, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, that the money had to be restored, reminding him that President Bush had made one thing clear when he selected Mineta to head the Transportation Department: Keep aviation matters out of the news. Mineta recounted the exchange in an interview last week with a group of Washington reporters: "I said, `Mitch, the President told me to keep aviation off the front page above the fold, and I need this $331 million for the Airport Improvement Program.' "

That argument turned out to be a winner, and the Administration chose to reinstate the funding. "Am I going to be able to win on every one of those [fights]? I doubt it," Mineta said. "But at least I feel I have the ability to take the President up on his offer of saying, `I've got an open door.' "

Pulling the airport construction money off the chopping block epitomizes the success that the lone Democrat has had during his first three months on the job, most observers say. They praise Mineta for paying attention to the obstacles confronting the transportation sector. He has been accessible to outside groups. And, despite belonging to the wrong political party, Mineta says he has been an active participant in the Bush Cabinet. "He's gotten off to a very fast start," said Jack Schenendorf, a lobbyist at Covington & Burling who served as the Bush transition team's primary transportation adviser. Prominent figures on Capitol Hill echo that opinion. "He's done an excellent job in bringing transportation issues to the forefront of the new Administration," noted Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

But not all moments in Mineta's takeoff have been smooth. In the comprehensive budget unveiled by the White House on April 9, the Transportation Department received a sizable cut in discretionary spending. Moreover, these first 100 days might be the easiest that the Secretary will face: Several potential problems loom on the horizon. They include possible airline strikes and an upcoming summer predicted to be chock-full of aviation delays and gridlock--all of which would hinder Bush's goal of keeping aviation issues out of the news. Indeed, how Mineta handles these challenges could make or break his tenure.

Most observers trace Mineta's early success to his extensive background in transportation and politics. Before becoming Transportation Secretary, Mineta had been the mayor of San Jose, Calif.; a Congressman; the chairman of the powerful House Transportation Committee; a lobbyist with Lockheed Martin Corp.; and Commerce Secretary during the Clinton Administration. Todd Hauptli, the chief lobbyist for both the American Association of Airport Executives and the Airports Council International-North America, believes that it was precisely this experience that helped Mineta win the fight for the airport funds. A less-qualified Transportation Secretary, he said, would not have been as successful. "Can you imagine an outside-the-Beltway politician hoofing it on over to the OMB? That's just not something that's easily done. You don't win those fights usually."

Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., the ranking member of the House Transportation Committee, says that Mineta's intervention saved the Bush Administration from certain defeat on the airport construction funding. Congress, he explained, voted overwhelming last year to increase the airport grant program, and it would have fought back if the White House had cut it. "He spared them a very harsh encounter with Congress on an issue where they would have lost," said Oberstar.

Although Mineta secured this particular funding, Bush's fiscal 2002 budget calls for cuts in the Transportation Department. It slashed discretionary spending by 11.4 percent-the largest cut among all departments. Overall, the Transportation Department's budget increased by just 1 percent, well below the inflation rate. Stan Collender, a federal budget expert at Fleishman-Hillard, a public relations firm, points out that such a cut is necessary to pay for Bush's tax cut and for his increase in education spending. Also, Congress has made spending on the major highway and aviation programs mandatory, which means that there's less wiggle room for discretionary funds. "You really can't blame Mineta for anything that is happening," he said.

Because the Bush budget fully funds these major highway and aviation programs, Washington's transportation community hasn't been too upset. Indeed, Oberstar believes that many of the cuts will eventually be reinstated during the appropriations process. "The Administration cuts something that they know Congress will restore," he said. "We fully expect that the transportation-advocacy folks will come in and restore some--if not all--of the budget."

Nevertheless, Collender notes that if Mineta were still the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, he would be somewhat disappointed at the Bush Administration's transportation budget. "He would be pushing real hard to get funding restored in those areas, especially because there is a surplus."

In his interview last week with Washington reporters, Mineta also discussed his experience to date as the Bush Cabinet's only Democrat. For the most part, he said, it's been a positive one, although he did admit that he feels "uncomfortable" at times working for such a conservative Administration. "I have no feeling that I have a `D' after my name," he said. "I can sit around that table at the Cabinet meetings, expressing my opinion."

In fact, he joked that he gets chided more often in this Texan White House for being a Californian than for being a Democrat.

Furthermore, Mineta said he's not too worried about being shunned because of his political affiliation. He recounted a conversation he had with Marlin Fitzwater, a former spokesman for Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, when he was mulling over his decision to become Transportation Secretary. Fitzwater, he said, mentioned that Mineta might encounter some social ostracism as a Democrat in a Bush Administration. But Mineta, a Japanese-American who spent part of his childhood in an internment camp during World War II, responded that ostracism was nothing new for him. "I said, `Marlin, what the hell do you think I've experienced all my life?' "

Mineta might even see his role in the Administration expand. Critics have accused the White House of ignoring California--a state where Bush received only 42 percent of the vote in November--as it battles to solve its energy crisis. Mineta is one of three Californians in the Bush Cabinet (Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman and Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony J. Principi are the others), and it wouldn't be surprising to see the White House utilize Mineta to deflect some of this criticism.

Despite his early favorable reviews, Mineta will likely encounter challenges that could produce some serious political turbulence. Chief among them is the problem with airline delays and gridlock. Flight delays reached a record high last year, and aviation experts predict that this summer will be just as bad--if not worse. Moreover, the number of U.S. airline passengers is supposed to increase from the current 650 million a year to more than 1 billion over the next decade. Mineta is already suggesting concrete ways to alleviate this problem. He is pushing to get runways built faster. He also wants to improve air-traffic-control technology. "You won't find anyone in this industry with anything but the highest praise [for Mineta]," said Michael Wascom, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association of America, the trade group that represents the major U.S. airlines.

Another hurdle Mineta faces are the looming strikes throughout the airline industry. Oberstar, however, believes that the Secretary is well suited to deal with them. "He [is in] the unique position of having the trust of labor and the respect of management," Oberstar said. Mineta's job got a little easier on April 22, when Delta Air Lines reached a surprising tentative contract agreement with its pilots. According to Chet Lunner, the Transportation Department's public affairs director, Mineta helped to keep negotiators at the table to break this labor impasse. "He and [White House Chief of Staff] Andy Card and the President worked well as a team to get that done," Lunner said.

Yet perhaps the biggest challenge that Mineta faces will be how he deals with politically divisive transportation issues. Although transportation is usually considered a bipartisan issue, some matters deeply divide Democrats and Republicans. Take, for example, affirmative action in highway-building contracts. Or labor disputes involving transportation unions. Or a transportation project's possible impact on the environment. Will Mineta, a California liberal, have a say on these contentious issues, or will he have to toe the Bush Administration's line?

But Schenendorf, the Washington lobbyist, doesn't believe that this will be too much of a dilemma for Mineta, because he's a consensus builder: "He's uniquely situated as a Democrat and a transportation expert to be able to bring [all] the parties to a common ground."

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