Published in Star Times, Newsletter of the Australian American Association, Vol. 3, No. 8, December, 1992, pp. 5; 8.
Australia had a big stake in the New York Primaries held in mid-September. The defeat of Stephen Solarz means the defeat of one of Australia’s most important allies in the Congress.
Solarz is well known in Australia as the leading US Congressman with a keen interest in East Asia and the Pacific, including Australia. Although based on the East Coast, Solarz has led discussion on the US role in the Pacific islands. When Senator Gareth Evans developed his Cambodian peace initiatives, it was with Solarz he talked to. Political leaders in the Philippines, Indonesia and China, to cite a few examples, pay particular attention to Solarz’s views, especially because of the powerful role he played in championing both human rights concerns and closer economic relations between the US and those countries.
A year ago Solarz was at the zenith of his influence. As chairman of the East Asia and Pacific House Committee, Solarz called the shots in influencing congressional opinion in many areas of foreign policy. A common prediction was “this is the man who will be Secretary of State” in a future Demoocratic Administration. But then a series of unexpected mishaps occurred and almost finished a brilliant career. First, the House loans and cheque scandal lit Washington. Solarz denied any wrong doing, despite the more than 700 bounced cheques that he issued.
(The Bank scandal arose when it was revealed that members of Congress were using the official Congress bank facilities to draw overdrafts without paying interest on them. This became a damaging political issue with argument that this was an “abuse of privilege” and typical of the arrogance of Congressmen. One bumper sticker plastered around New York bluntly stated: “Dump Solarz. 743 bounced checks”.)
Solarz’s difficulties were compounded by a redistribution, a redistricting as Americans call it, following the loss of three House of Representatives Congressional seats in New York. California gained an extra five seats and the other states, depending on population changes, experienced adjustments. Solarz’s seat was abolished.
Unfortunately none of the remaining surrounding Congressmen wanted to give up their seats in favour of Solarz. Also due to recent electoral laws, which encourage the creation of seats with boundaries paying due regard to apportionment for the under-represented minority(ies) in the Congress, a largely Hispanic seat was created in New York. It is that seat, Congressional District 12, that Solarz fought for. Solarz joked that the boundaries of the seat “would do justice to the boundaries of Yugoslavia”, so strangely were the areas in the electorate drawn.
There were five other candidates in the same New York Primary. All were Hispanic or Puerto Rican, and all argued that Solarz should allow someone of their origin to represent the area. The area is 58% Hispanic, 16% Black and 5% Asian American.
Solarz, who is Jewish, stressed that his family origins “go back to before the fifteenth century”. Of course in that century, in 1492, the Spanish King expelled all Jews from his kingdom. When some commentators highlighted the fact that much of the electorate is Puerto Rican, Solarz is supposed to have responded, “Puerto Rican, Puerto Rican – who isn’t Puerto Rican these days?” Solarz was accused of funding one or more of the other candidates. As there is no exchange of preferences, whoever emerged with a plurality of the vote would secure the nomination of the Democratic party. Splitting Hispanic votes of the other candidates was obviously in Solarz’s interest. But such action as alleged, would not only be unethical, it would also be illegal. Solarz hotly denied the charges.
The polls before the primary day indicated that Solarz did not have a majority. Some key interest groups including the editorials of the New York Times, the New York Democratic Party machine and the New York Labor Council were neutral. However, many local organisations, including the well-organised Hospital Employees Union (with a large Hispanic membership) and the Clothing Trades Union (fiercely critical of Solarz’s pro-free trade views) campaigned to support the eventual winner.
Amazingly some Catholic priests lectured from the pulpit against Solarz’s candidacy and tried to sway their congregations to vote for an Hispanic candidate. With the death the day before the primaries of Ted Weiss, a Congressman in Manhattan, a chilling note reverberated in the Solarz camp. The argument that Solarz should fill the suddenly created Weiss vacancy became strong. But Solarz stated that a loss would be the end of his congressional career. (Indeed Solarz did not contest the subsequent primary election within the Democratic Party for Weiss’ old seat). Solarz was defeated by Nydia M. Velazquez, the former US secretary of Puerto Rican Affairs.
Solarz was gracious in defeat, reminding his supporters of what Winston Churchill said at Potsdam when he was advised of this defeat at the British General Election of 1945. “This may be a blessing in disguise. But at the moment I have to admit that the blessing is very much disguised!”
His defeat means Australia loses a thoughtful ally. Maybe it is not always the case that the best candidate wins.
Note on Publication
Michael Easson is the Secretary of the Labor Council of NSW and was in the United States during the time of the New York Primaries.
Stephen Joshua Solarz (1940-2010) played a key role in Philippines President Marcos’ overthrow by using Congressional hearings to uncover evidence that Marcos was misusing US aid. He publicised Imelda Marcos’ massive shoe collection.
I met Solarz a few times in Australia. He was engaging, funny, whip-smart – the kind of person about whom you wanted to know more. Solarz had a wise respect for Australia’s place in the world and the politicians he came to meet here – particularly Senator Gareth Evans (Australian Foreign Affairs Minister 1988-1996).
Solarz sought a breakthrough in resolving the Cambodian standoff and the isolation of that country post the Vietnamese invasion (in December 1978). He sought Australia’s advice and proposed that Evans be nominated for the Nobel Peace prize for the Australian-sponsored Cambodian Peace Plan.
After leaving Congress, Solarz was appointed Chairman of the Central Asian-American Enterprise Fund, where he served until 1998. In 1994, he was considered for Ambassador to India, but withdrew. Solarz remained active through participation in think tanks and consulting firms, including the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the Intellibridge Expert Network, the International Crisis Group, and the American Committee for Peace in the Caucasus. Solarz died of esophageal cancer in 2010.