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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 102

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This is the grave of Stephen Solarz.

Born in 1940 in Manhattan, Solarz became interested in politics from a young age, received an MA in public law and government from Columbia in 1967 and taught for a year at Brooklyn College. He managed the House campaign for an anti-war candidate in 1966 and this made him feel he could be a politician. He ran for the New York State Assembly in 1968 and won, serving until 1974. In 1973, he ran for Borough President of Brooklyn and lost. After that, he decided to run for Congress, and won a seat in 1974 after defeating the corrupt and indicted Bertram Podell in the primary. He served in Congress until 1993.

Solarz became primarily involved in foreign policy, especially in Asia, and moved significantly to the right on many foreign policy issues, aligning with neoconservatives by the end of his life. He initially chose this as his policy platform to appeal to the large Jewish population in his district and he was a major advocate for Israel. He was the first American official to visit North Korea, meeting with Kim Il-Sung. Solarz led an early battle to stop the Carter administration from selling F-15 jets to Saudi Arabia, although he failed in the effort. On the other hand, he worked with Carter to continue sanctions on Rhodesia for their racist policies. He was close to the Aquino family and did much to publicize the horrors of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos on the Philippines. In fact, Solarz was the person who initially publicized the enormous shoe collection of Imelda, as part of hearings about the opulence of the Marcos family and how they stole foreign aid. He was also heavily involved in relations with India, which reflected the sizable number of wealthy Indian-Americans in his district. He met with Saddam Hussein at least twice in the 1980s. Yet, as he became a Washington foreign policy power broker, he also left his progressive roots behind. Solarz co-authored the 1991 resolution to support the Gulf War and in 1998, he would unite with neoconservatives to urge Bill Clinton to overthrow Hussein. He also got a bit too comfortable in power and was implicated in the House banking scandal in the early 1990s. Even so, he was mentioned by Charlie Cook as a possible 1992 presidential candidate for the Democrats. That wasn’t going to happen, but Solarz supported Clinton early on and hoped he would be named Secretary of State.

Solarz served as the political mentor for a young Chuck Schumer. However, Solarz had bad relationships with much of the New York Democratic Party, including eventually breaking with Schumer, who would come to see Solarz as the prime example of how a politician can destroy themselves. They got their revenge with the 1990 census, gutting his district after the state lost three congressional seats, splitting it into 3 surrounding districts. He tried to run in the open seat in the 12th district, but this newly drawn district was largely Latino and Nydia Velasquez defeated him in the primary, even though he threw huge amounts of cash into it.

Solarz’s defeat coincided with Bill Clinton’s rise to the presidency, so he stayed an important insider. He was considered a likely candidate to be Ambassador to India and Clinton initially offered it to him, but some sketchiness in his attempts to obtain a visa for a Hong Kong businessman with a criminal past made that impossible. Instead, Clinton named him Chairman of the Central Asian-American Enterprise Fund in 1993, an attempt to encourage private sector investment in the region. He served on that until 1998. Through the rest of his life, he stayed heavily involved in Asian relations, serving on a number of think tanks and commissions with other Washington insiders. He died of cancer in 2010.

Stephen Solarz is buried in Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

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