Former Congressman Stephen J. Solarz, a nine-term New York Democrat who defined his tenure through his work on foreign policy in the House of Representatives, died Monday at George Washington Hospital. Solarz was 70 and had suffered from esophageal cancer for several years.
Solarz, who served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is best known for taking on corruption in the Philippines, where Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, the country’s leader and first lady, were rumored to have embezzled millions of dollars to buy property in the United States. It soon emerged that Imelda Marcos owned some 3,000 pairs of shoes, a fact Solarz often highlighted in hearings in the mid-1980s. Ferdinand Marcos went into exile in 1986, and a leader supported by the U.S. was elected in his place.
Solarz is remembered fondly in the Pacific island nation.
“Solarz fought for democracy in the Philippines during the dark days of martial law even when his own government’s policy was to support the Marcos regime,” Edwin Lacierda, a spokesman for President Benigno Aquino III, told the Associated Press. “He was a true friend of the Philippines.”
The beginning of the Gulf War in 1991 also bore his fingerprints. Solarz had been an anti-Vietnam War activist earlier in life, but he broke with many Democrats to support full-scale military action against Iraq, and even co-sponsored the resolution that led President George H.W. Bush to launch the war.
Despite his foreign policy successes, Solarz’s Congressional tenure ended on a sour note. He was implicated in the House banking scandal in 1992, which involved the overdrafting of House checking accounts. He was defeated in a party primary the same year.
Stephen Joshua Solarz was born in New York on Sept. 12, 1940. He graduated from Brandeis University in 1962 and earned a master’s degree from Columbia in 1967. He became a member of the New York State Assembly almost immediately, serving from 1969 to 1975, before being elected to Congress to represent New York’s 13th district, a Brooklyn district with a heavily Jewish population.
Eighteen years later, the district was hardly recognizable; New York lost seats to Southern states with growing populations in the 1990 census, and the district had more and more Latino residents. In 1992, Solarz ran for re-election in the 12th district after choosing not to run in the 13th, and he lost his bid in the newly redrawn district to now-Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D).
“Stephen Solarz was a dedicated public servant, a strong advocate for Brooklyn and a leading thinker in foreign affairs,” Velázquez said in a statement Tuesday. “He will be remembered not only for what he accomplished for our City, but also his achievements in Asia and the Middle East.”
Solarz is survived by his wife, Nina, and two stepchildren.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.