Stephen Solarz, the tough-talking, nine-term Brooklyn congressman who was as comfortable blasting a foreign leader as he was negotiating a landlord-tenant dispute in Brighton Beach, died on Monday of esophageal cancer in Washington. He was 70 years old.
Solarz entered Congress in a post-Watergate wave of reformers, but made his name on the international scene as a strident advocate for Israel — which played well in his heavily Jewish district. He later became a key player in foreign policy, traveling to 100 countries — though not always so pleasurably: On one visit to Cuba, he got stuck in a nine-hour conversation with Fidel Castro.
His biggest moment on the international stage became an iconic moment in American foreign policy: During a 1986 hearing on the Philippines, he demonstrated that the island nation had abused foreign aid by revealing that First Lady Imelda Marcos had a collection of 3,000 shoes.
“Compared to Imelda,” Solarz quipped, “Marie Antoinette was a bag lady.”
Back home, those who knew him said he remained an everyman, but critics charged that he became detached from his home base as his star ascended (hey, that happens when you get meetings with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, as Solarz did in 1982 and 1986).
The lawmaker was cognizant of the naysayers. “I may not have an influence in Brooklyn, but they think I’m very important in Mongolia,” he said in 1991.
He was also hurt by scandal, fingered by a House ethics investigation that determined that he and his wife wrote hundreds of overdrafts at the House bank. He was never charged with a crime — despite 743 overdrafts — but his wife pleaded guilty to writing a bad check and stealing money from a charitable group she ran, and was sentenced to probation.
Those who knew him shrugged off the controversy.
After the scandal, the couple held an event at the Botanic Gardens — and friends showed up en masse. “Nobody was passing judgment,” recalled Chuck Reichenthal, the district manager of Community Board 13.
A one-time mentor to Sen. Charles Schumer (D–Park Slope), the two later became rivals. When congressional districts were redrawn by the state legislature, globetrotting Solarz was the odd man out — his district was virtually wiped out, while then-Rep. Schumer, who was untouched by the banking scandal, was safe.
Solarz ran and lost in a Latino majority district claimed by Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-Sunset Park), who still has the seat.
Born in Manhattan, Solarz was raised by his father, a lawyer and Tammany Hall operative, and a stepmother in Brooklyn, attending Midwood HS, where he was president of the student government. He later attended Brandeis University and Columbia University.
His first stint in politics came when he was 25, when he helped run the primary campaign of Melvin Dubin, an antiwar candidate for Congress. Dubin lost, but Solarz won, meeting his future wife Nina Koldin during the race. He next ran for Assembly, serving three terms, put up a failed but enthusiastic bid for borough president in 1973.
Early on, Solarz was a man of the people, say those who knew him.
“I remember him riding down Kings Highway in a convertible, waving to people,” said Ed Eisenberg, who volunteered for Solarz.
In the first post-Watergate election in 1974, Solarz unseated Bertram Podell, who later pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
Even though he was a lowly freshman, Solarz managed an appointment on the Foreign Affairs Committee and in his first month in office visited the Middle East, swiftly earning the nickname “the Marco Polo of Congress.”
In 1991, he went against the Democratic majority to support the United States entry into war in the Persian Gulf, comparing opponents to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who “offered Czechoslovakia on a silver plate to Hitler.”
Friends described him as an astute observer of the global scene.
“He saw what a lot of people didn’t see,” said Reichenthal. “He saw that there was no such thing as an idle event — that what happened in one place affected other places.”
But he didn’t lose a common touch, some said.
“He was not a snob, although he was brilliant,” said Pat Singer, founder of the Brighton Neighborhood Association. About 30 years ago, Solarz helped arbitrate a dispute between Singer and her landlord over a lack of heat. “I didn’t like him at first, because I think he was nicer to the landlord than me,” she said. “And he made me come out in the rain to a meeting.”
Over time, he won her over.
“He was a regular guy, a guy you could talk to,” she said.
Solarz went on to form an international business consultant firm, and the International Crisis Group, a mediation and public policy organization.
He is survived by his wife; his mother, Ruth Robin; two brothers, Avrom and Seth Robin; a stepson and stepdaughter; and four grandchildren.