Not long ago, during the glory days of the Gulf War, Stephen J. Solarz, ferret-faced little Democratic congressman from southern Brooklyn, was riding almost as high in the saddle as our Commander-in-Chief. For it was Solarz who played the major role in dragging his often- reluctant liberal colleagues away from their traditional dovish stance into all-out support for Desert Shield and Storm. Solarz had become the Bush administration’s favorite Democrat in Congress; more important, he had long basked in the glow of being the august New York Times‘ favorite congressman.

But he had scarcely begun to enjoy his glittering status, when the fates developed problems for Steve Solarz. The 1992 House check-bouncing scandal hit Solarz hard; for Steve had ranked seventh worst in the House by writing no less than 743 bounced checks. The devoted New York Times rushed into the breach; only a few days after it had published front and profile mug shots of New York-area congressmen with far fewer check overdrafts, the paper printed a front-page article fawning upon Solarz, replete with a picture of the congressman sitting in his armchair petting his favorite pooch. Solarz explained to the admiring Times reporter that he had far too much money and was far too preoccupied with world problems to have bounced such checks deliberately; instead, with remarkable lack of gallantry, he loaded the blame onto his wife Nina, executive director of the Fund for Peace, who apparently took care of all the congressman’s books while he thought deeply on world affairs. Solarz also claimed that many of his uncovered checks went for the care of his “invalid mother-in-law”; what he did not stress was a S2,285 check to satisfy a court judgment against him for an unpaid MasterCard bill or over $1,000 for the purchase of shoes. Denouncing the Times‘ hagiographical piece, veteran Solarzophobe journalist Michael Tomasky unkindly pointed out, in the leftist Village Voice, that the dog in the front-page picture belongs to Nina and that it actually detests Congressman Solarz.

But more important for Solarz’s future was that terror of all congressmen: redistricting. In 1992, New York State was forced to lose no less than three congressional seats, and the knives were out for most of the year, with both houses of the legislature and the state and federal courts working feverishly on which incumbent congressmen would get shafted in the process. An extra complication arose due to a court mandate to create one or perhaps even two Hispanic (in practice Puerto Rican) districts in New York City, to add to the seat of Democrat Jose Serrano, representative from the legendary South Bronx, a warzone area resembling Beirut during the Lebanese civil war or even Dresden in 1945.

For a while it looked as if Solarz’s district would be merged with the contiguous, also largely Jewish, district from southern Brooklyn, represented by the veteran Charles Schumer. Solarz, however, was anxious to avoid going head-to-head with Schumer. In the first place, many of Solarz’s voters were grumbling that Steve, in his anxiety to settle the problems of Cambodia or Afghanistan, was neglecting his constituents in Brooklyn; and secondly, the affable Schumer was far more popular than the perpetually scowling Solarz. It has been reported that, to save Steve, the Bush White House called Ralph Marino, Republican majority leader of the New York State Senate, and successfully got him to drop the plan for the combined Brooklyn district. The upshot of many months of wrangling, however, was that Solarz’s district was eliminated altogether, and so Steve, armed with a massive $2 million war chest, searched around for some district in which to run for Congress.

The obvious choice was the district on the West Side of Manhattan that edges into Brooklyn, long represented by Hungarian-born Theodore Weiss. This too was largely a Jewish district. But the problem for Solarz was that West Side Jews are very different from their religious confreres in Brooklyn. Brooklyn Jews tend to be Orthodox, lower-middle-class, socially conservative, and fiercely pro-Zionist; whereas West Side Jews are upper-middle-class, secularist, far more leftist, and traditionally dovish, even on Israel. Ted Weiss was one of the most left-wing members of Congress, even calling for the impeachment of George Bush for his invasion of Panama. Hence, it came as no surprise that, when Solarz took polls in Manhattan, he found himself losing handily to Weiss.

Where to run? Where to run? For a while, Solarz thought seriously of running in largely WASP and Republican Nassau County, in the New York suburbs; and, on an even more bizarre note, he seriously considered running in either of two districts represented by retiring Jewish Democrats in the Miami Beach area: William Lehman and Larry Smith, himself a leading bad-checker who was forced not to run again by allegations of financial impropriety.

Finally, Solarz decided to take his massive war chest and run in the newly created Hispanic district, the New York 12th. This egregious district is undoubtedly causing poor Elbridge Gerry, who started it all, to spin rapidly in his grave. Traversing no less than three boroughs, the new 12th starts on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, then snakes eastward into Queens and southward into Brooklyn. Often less than a block wide, the 12th sidles into an apartment building here, a development there, picking up ever}’ possible Puerto Rican resident. The effort to create a new Puerto Rican district ended up with 58 percent Hispanic residents. The problem, however, is that Puerto Ricans don’t often vote, especially in primaries, so that the total Puerto Rican proportion among registered Democrats (Republicans scarcely count) is only 49 percent. Another problem for the Hispanics was that no less than five Puerto Ricans, eager to partake of the gravy train, had already entered the Democratic primary, in addition to one Chinese social worker, angling for the 5 percent Asian vote in the district. And so, Solarz took the plunge, figuring that $2 million, a splintered Puerto Rican field, and the substantial white vote in the district (16 percent of the population, but 29 percent of the Democratic primary voters) could carry him to victory.

Solarz’s entry into the 12th district race drew the expected hysterical attacks from the champions of multiculturalism; how dare the white Solarz run in a district set aside for Puerto Ricans? The implication is that such entry was not only deeply immoral, but somehow unconstitutional. Liberal columnist Jack Newfield went so far as to denounce Solarz, as an “ethnic arsonist,” endangering hitherto peaceful Jewish-Hispanic relations. Understandably, Newfield did not elaborate about which ethnic group he expected to commit most of the arson. Most liberals drew back from the dangerous logic of this position: for if it is evil for a nonblack or non-Hispanic to run in a designated minority district, then why isn’t it equally evil for blacks or Hispanics to run in white districts, or for black Mayor David Dinkins to run in what is still in the majority a white city? There were lots of frantic pleas for the Puerto Rican candidates to agree on one of their number and for the rest to drop out, to unify against the Solarz danger; but none of them would do so.


Steve Solarz now proceeded to transform himself for the occasion. He hired two prominent Puerto Ricans as his campaign manager and field director. He renamed himself Esteban Solarz, spoke a few words of Spanish to his constituents, ran Spanish-language commercials, and put up posters reading “Solarz para El Congreso.” He tried to convince the bemused Puerto Rican masses of the three boroughs that he, Esteban, was really one of them, since his ancestors were Spanish-Portuguese Jews. None of this really took.

Esteban’s campaign manager, Rudy Garcia, stated that the campaign was aiming for one-third of the black vote (16 percent of registered voters), 90 percent of the Asian vote, and SO percent of the white vote; in other words, Solarz could win if he collared at least 15 percent of Puerto Rican voters. The 80 percent white vote assumed that most of the whites in the district are Jewish, a grave miscalculation, as Michael Tomasky pointed out. For the whites there are 85 percent Catholic and only 15 percent Jewish, and Irish and Italian Catholics scarcely feel any ethnic loyalty to Solarz.

Among Esteban’s Puerto Rican opponents, the two major figures were women. Such moderates as former Mayor Ed Koch and City Council President Andrew Stein backed Elizabeth Colon, former executive director of the Association of Puerto Rican Executive Directors; while the city’s left, headed by health-care union president Dennis Rivera, New York Teamsters head Barry Feinstein, and Mayor Dinkins, enthusiastically backed former City Councilwoman Nydia Velasquez, secretary of what amounts to the Puerto Rican Commonwealth’s embassy in New York City, its Office of Migration.

Finally, in the September 15 primary, Nydia Velasquez squeezed past Solarz by 1,800 votes, Colon coming in third. Esteban could go back to being Steve. An anonymous leak of hospital records documenting a suicide attempt by Velasquez the year before came too late to prevent her victory.

But another bizarre event occurred. On the day before the primary, Ted Weiss suddenly died, leaving only the candidate from the Marxo-psychobabble New Alliance Party in the Democratic race. The Democratic leaders pleaded with voters to vote for the dead man, so that the Democratic county committee members from the West Side could choose the primary victor, and, in effect, Weiss’s successor. And indeed, Weiss dead proved a formidable political leader and swept easily to victory.

There now ensued a fearful scramble for the souls of the several hundred county committeemen from the dead man’s district. Whom would they choose? Could it be . . . a last, ghoulish chance for Solarz? But apparently this was too much chutzpah even for Solarz, just repudiated by the Democratic electorate, and Steve graciously took himself out of the race. Entering the race, however, was Weiss’s predecessor, the formidable and bellicose Bella Abzug who, now in her 70’s, threw her trademark large, floppy hat into the ring. As did longtime West Side State Senator Franz Leichter. But their challenges were beaten back by the favorite of the region’s Democratic establishment, a longtime assemblyman, the corpulent Jerry Nadler.

But Esteban was not to slink quietly into the dark night. Once again, the faithful New York Times (October 7) published a hagiographical article on Solarz, replete with a picture of him reading a paper. This article was an elegy to Solarz, pointing out how beloved he is to every leader of both parties and telling of an “outpouring of affection and respect” from President Bush, Bill Clinton, Senator Hatch, and heck, just about everybody who is anybody. So what now for Solarz? There is a bonechilling rumor that he could become Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, in which ease Solarz will realize his objective of helping to run the world. In that event, the nation’s—and the world’s—loss will surely be Brooklyn’s gain.