Stephen Solarz dies: Former N.Y. congressman was 70

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2010; 9:20 PM

Former U.S. Rep. Stephen J. Solarz, 70, a Brooklyn Democrat who became a muscular voice on foreign policy during nine terms in Congress and who challenged dictators and colleagues alike with a hard-driving style, died Nov. 29 at George Washington University Hospital. He had esophageal cancer.

Until his election defeat in 1992 - a combination of redistricting and implication in the House bank overdraft scandal - Mr. Solarz amassed a formidable policy record through his membership on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mr. Solarz was a tenacious, deeply informed and sharp-tongued politician who evoked strong passions with his unapologetically robust role in international affairs. He rebuked presidents, criticized House members and interrogated bureaucrats with little regard for the social fallout. He earned a reputation as a micromanager of foreign policy.

As chairman of subcommittees on African affairs and later Asian and Pacific affairs, Mr. Solarz helped shape the American response to crises all over the world. He saw a more assertive role for the House on international affairs, a role traditionally taken by the Senate.

Former Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), who served with Mr. Solarz on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said, "Steve was one of a handful of members who in a post-Watergate era put the House of Representatives on a competitive footing with the Senate in foreign policy discussions."

Through public hearings and advocacy in the press, Mr. Solarz was a relentless critic of the corrupt and autocratic Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos; expressed support for democracy movements in South Korea and Taiwan; and highlighted human rights abuses against Vietnamese refugees by Thai pirates.

On apartheid South Africa, he called for the "constructive enragement" of economics sanctions as a moral imperative over "constructive engagement" of continued negotiations.

He helped funnel millions of dollars to Cambodian resistance fighters aiming to topple the pro-Vietnamese communist government in Phnom Penh. And he was one of the most outspoken Democratic supporters of the Persian Gulf War, believing economic sanctions were ineffective against Saddam Hussein.

He accused many in his party who disagreed with his hawkish stance of being squarely on the wrong side of history. He likened those opponents to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who "offered Czechoslovakia on a silver plate to Hitler."

Several years earlier, Mr. Solarz gained wide attention with his frequent public attacks on Marcos, a major Cold War recipient of U.S. military aid. For years, Marcos's rule was tolerated because he was seen as a bulwark against the spread of communism in Asia.

Mr. Solarz met with Marcos in August 1983 and threatened to try to reduce the spigot of military aid unless the Philippine leader curbed abuses and held free elections.

Days later, opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. was slain after returning to Manila from U.S. exile. A distraught Mr. Solarz became one of the staunchest U.S. protectors of Aquino's widow, Corazon.

While Corazon Aquino was supported in the Philippines by a mass movement known as the "People Power" revolution, Mr. Solarz in Washington used his congressional pulpit to draw attention to the excesses of the Marcos regime.

He was among the first to highlight first lady Imelda Marcos collection of 3,000 luxury-brand shoes. "Compared to Imelda," Mr. Solarz said, "Marie Antoinette was a bag lady."

Moreover, he held well-publicized congressional hearings into accusations that Marcos plundered the Philippine treasury to buy property in New York.

Mr. Solarz was credited with helping set the groundwork for a reversal of U.S. policy toward Marcos. In 1986, Marcos went into exile and free elections brought Corazon Aquino to power.

Mr. Solarz was not shy about promoting his role in restoring democracy to the Philippines. During hearings he chaired regarding Marcos's vast wealth, he commanded a writer for New York magazine, "You are going to write about a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who sallied forth to do battle with the evil dragons of the Philippines."

Stephen Joshua Solarz was born in Manhattan on Sept. 12, 1940. Because of a difficult relationship with his parents, he was raised in Brooklyn by his widowed aunt.

He was nevertheless drawn to politics through his father, a lawyer and operative in the city's Tammany Hall political machine.

Stephen Solarz was elected vice president of the student body at Brandeis University, from which he graduated in 1962.

In 1967, Mr. Solarz received a master's degree in public law and government from Columbia University. That same year, he married Nina Koldin.

Besides his wife, of McLean and a second home in Turkey, survivors include two stepchildren, Randy Glantz of McLean and Lisa Prickett of Great Falls; his mother, Ruth Robin of New York and Florida; two half-brothers; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Solarz served in the New York state assembly from 1969 to 1975 and then unseated a vulnerable U.S. House incumbent, Bertram Podell, who later pleaded guilty to corruption charges.

In the House, Mr. Solarz represented a district that had one of the country's largest Jewish populations. He remained a reliable supporter of Israel over the years, even as his foreign policy portfolio grew much broader.

He was occasionally criticized for not making home-district concerns a priority. He tried to poke fun at his travels: "I may not have much influence in Brooklyn, but they think I'm very important in Mongolia."

Mr. Solarz's political career unraveled during the 1992 election. He was forced to run in a new district after a statewide redrawing of congressional districts that took into account ethnic population shifts in New York. Running in a Latino majority district, he lost to Nydia M. Velazquez, who remains in the House.

Mr. Solarz's chances were substantially dimmed by the House banking scandal. A House ethics investigation concluded that Mr. Solarz and his wife were among the worst abusers in the House banking scandal. The Solarzes had overdrawn their account 743 times at the informal House bank.

Mr. Solarz did not face criminal charges, but as a Justice Department investigation continued, Nina Solarz pleaded guilty in 1995 to stealing money from a charitable group she ran and to writing a bad check on the House bank. She received probation.

In the mid-1990s, Mr. Solarz helped start the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization that works to contain political crises in developing countries and influence public policy. He also was an international business consultant, working with the governments of India, Singapore and Turkey, among others.

While in Congress, Mr. Solarz turned his home in McLean into a foreign policy salon where leading figures of the defense and intelligence establishment dined and played tennis. Gen. Colin L. Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, an Episcopalian, once spent Passover there.

Despite such powerful friends, Mr. Solarz once told The Washington Post that he was comfortable as a political loner when he had to be. "I think there are some members who are respected and there are others who are liked," he said. "It would be nice to have both respect and affection. But if I had to make a choice I would rather have respect."

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