Steve Solarz (1940-2010) and the making of Senator Schumer

Stephen Solarz. (Photo by LIFE magazine.)
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The initial obituaries for Stephen Solarz, the former nine-term congressman from Brooklyn who died of esophageal cancer at the age of 70 on Monday, do not even mention the name Chuck Schumer. Which is a shame, because there might not have been a Chuck Schumer, as we know him today, if there hadn’t been a Stephen Solarz.

To the extent that Schumer, who was just 23 and barely out of Harvard law when he won a seat in the Assembly back in 1974, had a political mentor, it was Solarz. Separated by ten years in age, the two hailed from the same part of Brooklyn and brought the same brand of liberalism, the same tireless work ethic, and the same endless comfort with self-promotion to the political arena. They started out as unwavering allies, each playing a pivotal role in the other’s rise. But Brooklyn soon proved too small for the both of them, their ambitions turned into a source of tension and conflict, and a deep, bitter, decades-long freeze ensued. To Solarz, Schumer would become an insufficiently grateful upstart—the kid who’d grown too big for his britches. To Schumer, Solarz would come to serve as an object lesson in all of the wrong choices a politician can make. When the rivalry came to an abrupt and stunning end back in 1992, it was Schumer who got the last laugh—and Solarz, then barely into his 50s, who was frozen out of the game for the rest of his life.

Solarz got his start when Schumer was still a teenager, parlaying the experience he acquired managing an anti-war House campaign in 1966 into a winning bid of his own for the Assembly two years later. Just 28 years old, Solarz arrived in Albany as an idealistic reformer with a bright political future, and within a few years he was mounting a doomed but purposeful bid for Brooklyn borough president. Solarz knew he had little chance of ousting Sebastian Leone, a key player in Meade Esposito’s Brooklyn machine, in the 1973 primary. But the name recognition and political and fund-raising contacts he’d gain through the race would be invaluable, and with Representative Bertram Podell facing a federal corruption probe, there’d be a chance to put them to use right away.

Sure enough, Solarz was defeated by Leone and the Brooklyn regulars, only to knock off Podell—who ran with Esposito’s full support and under the cloud of a federal indictment (he was later convicted)—in the September 1974 primary. That primary win in Brooklyn’s old 13th District was tantamount to a general-election victory. The young liberal idealist was on his way to Washington, one of scores of reform-minded Watergate babies elected that fall.

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1973 and 1974 were just as important for Schumer, who saw the path to prominence that Solarz was blazing and set out to mimic it. Still in law school, he threw himself into Solarz’s ’73 borough president effort, making a name for himself among good-government reformers in Brooklyn and building goodwill with the candidate. Solarz was happy to return the favor a year later, throwing his support behind Schumer in the race to succeed him in Albany. On the same day that Solarz defeated Podell, Schumer edged out Jerome Cohen by 700 votes in the Democratic primary. The 45th Assembly District had a new face—and the New York state legislature had its youngest member since Theodore Roosevelt.

On Capitol Hill, Solarz quickly faced a fateful decision: what committee post to seek. Ways and Means and Appropriations were the plum assignments, and he probably could have maneuvered his way on to one of them. But he decided not to. The marquee committees were massive, with New Yorkers already serving on both of them. Under the House’s seniority system, it would be years before he’d play a meaningful role on either, and the odds that he’d ever ascend to a chairmanship were slim. Solarz wasn’t one for waiting. He chose Foreign Relations, and the chance to make a mark right away.

Schumer, who was no more eager to grow old in the Assembly than Solarz had been, wasn’t one for waiting, either. In his third term, he saw an opening: Elizabeth Holtzman was giving up her Brooklyn-based 16th District House seat to run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Jacob Javits. Schumer jumped into the race to replace her, eager to join his mentor in Washington. But the mentor didn’t share this enthusiasm, probably because he could do the math: After the 1980 elections, New York’s House delegation—and New York City’s, in particular—would be hit hard by redistricting. The last thing he needed was a sharp, ambitious and well-connected pol like Schumer sliding into the neighboring 16th District seat. Schumer’s House campaign was an act of betrayal.

This time, there’d be no endorsement.

Not that this stopped Schumer, of course. The the young assemblyman out-hustled and out-raised his three foes, Susan Alter, Theodore Silverman and Edward Hayes, leaving them in the dust on primary day. He was 30 and on his way to the U.S. House, the stage seemingly set for a political death-match with Solarz in 1982.

When the figures from the ’80 census were tallied, New York was assigned to lose five House seats, a reduction from 39 to 34, with leaders from both parties in Albany empowered (through a commission they chose) to redraw the lines. The basic parameters were clear from the outset: Each party would give up two seats (with incumbents pitted against each other in primaries, if necessary), with a “fair fight” between a Democratic and Republican incumbent in a fifth district. As a freshman from overrepresented Brooklyn, Schumer was an obvious target, and with his district abutting Solarz’s, it was only natural to merge the two. Thus, his victory in 1980 set off a political and financial arms race like New York had never seen. Solarz, who had taken to traveling the country and the globe through his Foreign Affairs work, used his influential post to cultivate elite national donors, with a particular emphasis on pro-Israel money. In 1981 alone, he held fund-raisers in Cleveland, San Francisco, Detroit and Los Angeles, among other cities, raking in nearly $500,000—then a whopping sum for a House man.

“As Albert Camus once wrote, 'Nothing so wonderfully concentrates a man's mind as the imminent thought of execution,’” he told a New York Times reporter at the time.

But Schumer defied his freshman status and kept pace. After winning a spot on the Banking Committee, he set about making friends on Wall Street, tapping the city’s top law firms and securities houses for campaign donations. "I told them I looked like I had a very difficult reapportionment fight. If I were to stand a chance of being re-elected, I needed some help," he would later tell the Associated Press.

By the spring of 1982, the largest bankroll in the entire House belonged to Solarz, with nearly $700,000. The third-largest belonged to Schumer, with nearly $500,000. The strength each man demonstrated was enough to scare party leaders in Brooklyn and Albany into keeping them apart in redistricting. When the new maps were finally drawn in June ’82, Democrats served up Jonathan Bingham (who declined to run against fellow incumbent Mario Biaggi in the newly configured 19th District) and the eccentric Frederick Richmond (thrown into a new majority-minority 11th District, where Major Owens ultimately won the seat) and left Leo Zeferetti to fend for himself (and lose) against Republican Guy Molinari. Schumer and Solarz were left alone, free to grow in the House for another decade if they wanted. When the process ended, Schumer invited Solarz to lunch. “We talked about friendship,” he said afterward. “Everything's all right now.''

But it really wasn't.

In the years after ’82, the men continued to eye one another with suspicion, even as they charted dramatically different courses.

Originally elected as a reformer, Solarz morphed into a creature of the Potomac, his ambition fulfilled by the international profile that his work on the Foreign Affairs Committee afforded him. He bought a home, frequently described in news reports as “sprawling,” in tony McLean, Virginia, where he and his wife regularly entertained D.C. elites and diplomatic luminaries, keeping only an address (his mother-in-law’s home) in Brooklyn. Bread-and-butter issues that might resonate in Brighton Beach seemed to matter less to him, and his interest in carrying the liberal banner in domestic political fights waned. Foreign policy was his calling and the Foreign Affairs chairmanship—and, maybe someday, the job of secretary of state—was his destiny. He traversed the globe, fighting the Reagan administration over its commitment to democracy in the Philippines (and publicizing Imelda Marcos’ vast shoe collection) while pushing his own party toward a more aggressive posture toward the Soviet Union. His agenda was actually neocon, before the term was pejorative, and—especially in the wake of the Democrats’ drubbings in the 1980 and 1984 elections—Solarz became one the Democrats’ preeminent foreign-policy voices.

With this kind of status, Solarz saw no need to seek a political promotion. His seat in the House and his committee perch were all he needed to be a major player, and after ’82, both seemed secure. Some Democrats tried to recruit him to run against Al D’Amato, who had nipped Holtzman in ’80 (thanks to an independent candidacy by the liberal Javits, the man he stunned in the ’80 G.O.P. primary), in 1986, but Solarz saw a potential trap.

“When I considered the possibility of joining Senators Abzug and Holtzman and McCarthy and Ottinger in the other body, I decided I would prefer to remain with my colleagues here in the House,” he quipped in ’86.

Bob Dole, then the G.O.P.’s Senate leader, may have put it better when he wondered why Solarz would ever want to give up his job as secretary of state.

But to Schumer, Solarz’s approach to politics was itself a trap. It surely didn’t escape his notice, for instance, that Solarz’s globetrotting and aggressive self-promotion rubbed many of his colleagues the wrong way. To Solarz, who had no ambition to join the House’s leadership or to win a Senate seat and whose Foreign Affairs post was essentially guaranteed under the seniority system, this wasn’t a source of much concern. When he went head-to-head with Solarz and prevailed in a fight over an amendment affecting the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in the mid-‘80s, Molinari told the press, “A lot of people came up, even Democrats, and said, 'Because it was Steve's amendment, we voted with you.” It was true, but what did Solarz care—it’s not like he needed his colleagues for much.

Schumer, though, had different aspirations, and saw the trap that Solarz was setting for himself. An accomplished self-promoter himself, Schumer also took pains to ingratiate himself with his House colleagues. His hard-charging, me-first style rubbed plenty of them the wrong way, to be sure, but unlike Solarz, he also tried to be useful to them, partnering on legislation and working tirelessly to line up support. Nor did Schumer embrace the D.C. lifestyle. There would be no sprawling McLean estate for him. A shared townhouse with several colleagues and weekends back home in Brooklyn were fine by him. Let Solarz lead the crusade for democracy in the Philippines. Schumer would lead the charge for handgun control, an issue far more meaningful to most New Yorkers in the ‘80s and early ‘90s —one with the potential to help lift Schumer from the House to something bigger.

For his first few terms in the House, just about the only person in politics who could imagine Chuck Schumer as a major player in state or even national politics was Chuck Schumer. Solarz was Brooklyn’s political-intellectual powerhouse, everyone knew. In the early ‘90s, Schumer let it be known that he might like to be mayor someday, maybe even governor. A few reporters made note of this, and some even speculated that he’d take on a wounded David Dinkins in a 1993 Democratic mayoral primary. The spotlight was still on Solarz, never more so than in 1990 and 1991, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and George H.W. Bush called for a military response. Many Democrats resisted what they insisted would be a war for oil. But not Solarz. Evicting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait meshed perfectly with his vision of a muscular U.S. role in the Middle East. It was Solarz who coauthored the resolution authorizing war, a resolution that most Democrats opposed and that just about every Republican in Congress supported. One of the “no” votes belonged to Schumer.

The war, of course, was a rousing success. The Iraqis mustered little resistance and left Kuwait quickly, Bush refused to push on to Baghdad, and the troops were brought home with minimal casualties. America, it was said, had kicked the Vietnam syndrome, and Bush’s approval rating soared to nearly 90 percent. He was thought to be invincible for 1992. The interventionist foreign policy that had been Solarz’s focus in Congress had seemingly been vindicated—something he was happy to tell anyone who’d listen. Any Democrat running for president in ’92, he counseled, had better be a hawk.

“My party can’t win the next presidential election on foreign policy,” he decreed, “but we can lose it on foreign policy.”

In a spring ’92 column, political analyst Charlie Cook actually mentioned Solarz as a potential White House candidate. Establishment Democrats, seeking cover for their initial opposition to the war, sought him out. Bill Clinton, who bragged that he’d backed the war from the start (he’d actually vacillated until after it was underway), sought Solarz out as a top foreign policy adviser, winning his endorsement. When Clinton’s campaign ran into trouble after a loss in New Hampshire to Paul Tsongas, Solarz was dispatched to Florida to scare Democrats away from Tsongas with claims that Tsongas, through his opposition to the Gulf War, had endangered Israel’s security. If Clinton won, it seemed, Solarz just might get that promotion to secretary of state.

He never saw it coming, but the end of his public career was just around the corner. As Solarz was taking his Gulf War victory lap, leaders in Albany were once again grappling with reapportionment. The ’90 census had mandated a loss of three more seats for New York. Rumors of a Schumer-Solarz clash sprouted up again, but Solarz paid them little heed. His war chest was vastly bigger than it had been in ’82. So was Schumer’s. So of course they’d be fine. He publicly taunted Schumer for his vote against the war and wore his own willingness to team up with Bush as a badge of honor.

"I clearly have burned my bridges to many of the people in the peace movement, and liberal activists within the party, who think of me as a warmonger and a hawk," Solarz declared.

Democrats in Albany may not have been bothered by his hawkishness, but they were bothered by what they took as Solarz’s air of imperiousness—something that was reinforced with the news in early ’92 that Solarz had been one of the worst abusers of the House Bank, bouncing some 743 checks. (House members didn’t have to pay overdraft fees.) The ’92 redistricting process took forever (as usual), but the final map contained a bombshell: Solarz’s district was wiped out, its bits and pieces scattered into three others. Overnight, his career was imperiled. Option A was to run against Ted Weiss, the eight-term West Side liberal whose district had absorbed some of Solarz’s. Option B was to run against Bill Green, the liberal Republican East Side congressman who had succeeded Ed Koch in 1978. And then there was Option C: Run in the newly-created 12th District, which contained only a sliver of his old one and which mapmakers had drawn to maximize the influence of Hispanic voters.

Solarz agonized for weeks, polled each district extensively, and made what proved to be the wrong choice, opting to run in the 12th District. Minority leaders screamed in protest. The district, they noted, hadn’t been created to send another white guy to Congress. Solarz poured all of the campaign cash he’d been hording for two decades into the race, flooding the airwaves with slick ads. But he got little help: The city and state Democratic establishments weren’t exactly panicked at the thought of losing him in the House. In the September primary, Solarz lost to Nydia Velazquez, who had been Puerto Rico’s official representative in New York, 34 to 28 percent. Ironically, Weiss ended up dying days before that primary; had Solarz opted to challenge him, he likely would have won the seat. (Instead, it went to Jerrold Nadler, who was picked by a county-committee vote to replace Weiss on the November ballot.) He also might have beaten Green, who wasn’t nearly as entrenched as everyone figured, and who ended up losing in the ’92 general election to Carolyn Maloney, who still holds the seat today.

Schumer, who was pleased to remind voters that he had bounced zero checks, was a spectator for all of this. Map-makers had left his district untouched. It did not go unnoticed when, just over a year after redistricting, Schumer hired for his D.C. office a man named Benjamin Chevat—the same Benjamin Chevat who had been the counsel to Saul Weprin, who had been the Assembly Speaker during the redistricting fight. Schumer had avoided Solarz’s fatal mistake. He never stopped paying attention to Albany.

Salt was added to Solarz’s wounds a few years later, when Clinton offered him the ambassadorship of India. It was hardly the lofty post Solarz had dreamed of when he’d teamed up with Clinton in ’91, but not a bad consolation prize considering the events that subsequently transpired. But Solarz’s nomination unraveled amid reports of his efforts, during and after his time in Congress, to secure a visa for a businessman who was also part of Hong Kong’s mafia. Solarz stressed that he’d backed off as soon as he learned of the man’s background, but the White House quickly urged him to withdraw from consideration, and Solarz complied. It was March 1994 and for Solarz, not yet 54 years old, his days as a political force were over—just as Chuck Schumer was starting to set his sights on 1998 and Al D’Amato’s Senate seat.

Steve Kornacki is the news editor for Salon.

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