A Nod to Democrats and Asian-Americans ; Transportation Nominee Norman Mineta Is a Party Stalwart, Though Pro- Business

Article excerpt

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. …