SOLARZ, STEPHEN (1940– ), U.S. congressman 1974–94, leading Democratic foreign policy expert. Born and educated in Brooklyn, Solarz is the son of an attorney and Tammany Hall captain. He is a product of the New York public schools and a graduate of Midwood High School. He attended Brandeis University (B.A. 1962), where he edited the student newspaper.
He then went on to Columbia Law School but found law school uninteresting and switched to the graduate school in international affairs. Among others, he studied with Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was to become Jimmy Carter's national security advisor while Solarz was a congressman. He also worked with famed columnist Max *Lerner at the New York Post and as national news editor of Newsfront. He taught political science at Brooklyn College before running for the State Assembly in 1968 and defeating a 15-term incumbent. He served in the Assembly for five years and ran for Congress in 1974 in the most heavily Jewish district in the nation, serving such areas as Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay, and Coney Island. His successor in the State Assembly was Charles *Schumer, destined to be his colleague, ally, and sometimes rival in the years ahead.
Solarz asked for a seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. His opening salvo in Congress marked him as an ambitious and aggressive comer with a keen interest in foreign policy. In his first six months he gave 12 speeches and cosponsored 370 bills. Even his most ardent critics could never call him lazy. He conferred with world leaders and set out to make a name for himself in international relations. As one staff member put it: "Steve is only interested in two things: Brooklyn and the rest of the world."
In the 1980s, he chaired the Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, an area of growing interest to the American people in that decade. He is remembered for his leadership on the Philippines. He left Manila just as Benigno S. Aquino was coming home to challenge President Ferdinand Marcos. Following Aquino's assassination, Solarz returned to Manila for the funeral and proceeded to push the Reagan administration to distance itself from the Marcos government. Shortly after Marcos left for exile in Hawaii, Solarz was at one of the opulent palaces and publicized Imelda's massive shoe collection. He worked closely with Aquino's widow, Corazon, who became president.
In his years of service, Solarz became known as one of the most important and informed members of the House. A world traveler, he conducted himself as a future secretary of state. An ardent defender of Israel, he introduced legislation barring U.S. firms from complying with the boycott of Israel. He freed Jewish women from Syria, enabling them to join the Syrian community in Brooklyn. His performance was, to say the least, impressive. Kurt Stone reports that he was one of the first to back the Afghan rebels, created a plan adopted by the UN to resolve the civil war in Cambodia, was the first American government figure to visit North Korea in 30 years, co-sponsored the resolution to allow President George H.W. Bush to use force in the Persian Gulf and help plan a nuclear freeze strategy.
He introduced the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, designed to permit Orthodox Jews to keep their head covered while on public service, which only passed the House after Solarz was no longer a member.
With the redistricting of New York and its diminished congressional representation, Solarz was forced to run as a white man in a mixed hispanic and black district and was defeated in a 1992 primary. His political influence was weakened by the loss of a key ally in Albany – responsible for redistricting – and because he was caught up in the House Banking scandal when it became known that he and his wife had written 743 overdrafts, which hurt his reelection bid as well. Schumer remained in a safe district and soon became a U.S. senator. Solarz was nominated to serve as ambassador to India, where his expertise would have been of service to the Clinton Administration, but the nomination was withdrawn without explanation. Shortly thereafter his wife, Nina, was found guilty of stealing funds from a charity. She was given probation.
Solarz maintained his interest in foreign policy and has extensive ties to both the Middle East and the Pacific rim. His intelligence and diligence served to make him a diminished but important voice in U.S. foreign policy.
K.F. Stone, The Congressional Minyan: The Jews of Capitol Hill (2000); L.S. Maisel and I.N. Forman, Jews in American Politics (2001)