What does Rep. Hilda Solis, Barack Obama’s selection for secretary of labor, bring to the job? Only a record of passionate commitment to working people, a high level of political smarts, and some genuine displays of raw guts that could make her a star of American liberalism.

In 1996, when she was a back-bencher (and the first Latina) in the California State Senate, Hilda Solis did something that no other political figure I known of had done before, or has done since: She took money out of her own political account to fund a social justice campaign. Under California law, the state minimum wage is set by the gubernatorially-appointed Industrial Welfare Commission, and California’s governors for the preceding 14 years, Republicans George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, hadn’t exactly appointed members inclined to raise that wage. So Solis dipped into her own campaign treasury and came up with the money to fund the signature-gatherers to put a minimum wage hike initiative on the California ballot. The signature gatherers gathered the signatures, the measure was placed on the ballot, it passed handily in the next election, and California’s low-wage janitors and gardeners and fry and taco cooks, and millions like them, got a significant raise.

While in the legislature, Solis also became the chief proponent in state government for the environmental justice movement that was bubbling up in various working-class communities around the state, steering to passage bills that reduced airborne carcinogens in industrial areas and that created parkland alongside the rivers that run through some of Los Angeles’ poorest neighborhoods. She took a leading role in promoting domestic violence awareness in the state’s communities of color.

And in 2000, she did something liberals always talk about doing and almost never do: she challenged an incumbent Democratic congressman with a piss-poor record in that Spring’s Democratic primary, and defeated him soundly. Marty Martinez, a 9-term incumbent seeking his 10th, had voted for NAFTA, opposed gun controls and abortion rights, and backed the extension of a freeway into a residential area -- managing to estrange labor, enviros, feminists and liberals of all descriptions. Still, Democrats virtually never run against incumbents, from the left or from anyplace. But Solis, with the encouragement of L.A. County AFL-CIO chieftain Miguel Contreras, did just that. She not only won, but defeated Matinez by a whopping 69 percent to 31 percent margin.

In the House, Solis has continued to champion labor causes, immigrants' rights, women’s health and environmental protections. She also worked closely with Rahm Emanuel in recruiting Democratic House candidates from the Southwest and Latino-dominated districts, so she brings to her new job a strong relationship with Obama’s incoming chief-of-staff. Now, she’s in the key position to promote the Employee Free Choice Act, which seems likely to be the most contentious issue on Obama’s agenda. But Solis has never been deterred by controversy.

--Harold Meyerson

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