Former New York Congressman Stephen J. Solarz, a foreign affairs expert who in 1986 revealed the extravagance of Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos, including her 3,000 pairs of shoes, died on Monday. He was 70.
Solarz also angered many of his fellow Democrats when in 1991 he co-sponsored the resolution authorizing President George H. W. Bush to wage the first war against Iraq. A year later, he lost his seat in a dramatically redrawn Brooklyn district that he had served since 1974.
Solarz’s son-in-law Glen Prickett said the nine-term congressman died at George Washington Hospital in Washington after a four-year battle with cancer of the esophagus.
Prickett called Solarz a “great champion of human rights” and a “great opponent of repressive regimes.”
“He was certainly one of the smartest, most accomplished people I’ve ever met,” Prickett said.
His most well-known battle was in 1986, when Solarz held highly publicized hearings to prove that Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos had looted the Philippine treasury of millions of dollars to buy real estate in the United States. He led the congressional movement to withhold military aid to that country until Marcos could be driven out and Corazon Aquino installed as president.
“Solarz fought for democracy in the Philippines during the dark days of martial law even when his own government’s policy was to support the Marcos regime,” Edwin Lacierda, a spokesman for President Benigno Aquino III, said. “He was a true friend of the Philippines.”
During the hearings, Solarz accused Marcos of running a “kleptocracy” and enriching himself and his wife at the expense of his country’s citizens. Solarz said in March 1986 after a visit to Manila that Versailles, the palace of French King Louis XVI, looked like an “Appalachian hovel” in comparison to Malacanang Palace, where the Marcoses lived.
A few years later, he surprised some with his willingness to play a leadership role in authorizing the first Gulf War after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Some thought because he had been an early opponent of the Vietnam War, he should have favored continuing sanctions in the Gulf — the position of the Democratic Party leadership.
Solarz, who was a senior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said at the time that the Gulf War was not comparable to Vietnam. Rather, it was more like World War II.
“I would imagine that the Kuwaitis must feel today exactly the way the French felt after the Normandy invasion,” he said. “They obviously did not relish having bombs dropped on their homes and factories and fields but they knew this was the price they had to pay to be liberated from the Nazis.”
According to an obituary provided by his family, during the debate on the war, Solarz said, “The great lesson of our time is that evil still exists, and when evil is on the march, it must be confronted.”
Though he was never charged, he was hurt by the House bank check-writing scandal. In March 1992, the House Ethics Committee cited Solarz as one of the 22 worst abusers in the scandal that forced the closing of the bank. He overdrew 743 checks in a 39-month period.
His wife, Nina Solarz, was fined $5,300 and sentenced to a year’s probation for her role in the scandal, for which she apologized.
Afterward, Solarz’s political fortunes plunged when his House district was dismantled in a congressional remap as New York and other northern states surrendered seats to the Sunbelt after the 1990 Census.
His true passion was trying to protect human rights around the world, Prickett said.
In 1981, while serving on the subcommittee on Asian and Pacific affairs, he helped develop a peace plan to end genocide in Cambodia. Also, as chairman of the subcommittee on Africa, Solarz worked with President Jimmy Carter to maintain U.S. sanctions against the white minority government of Rhodesia. It helped establish Zimbabwe.
His work in foreign affairs continued after Congress. He was president of Solarz Associates, an international consulting firm. In 1995, he co-founded the International Crisis Group (ICG), a private, non-governmental organization designed to strengthen the international community’s ability to anticipate and prevent man-made crises.
He and Nina divided their time between their home in McLean, Va., and a second in Turkey.
His formal political career began in 1966, when he managed one of the first anti-war Congressional campaigns in the country, in Brooklyn. The candidate, Mel Dubin, lost, but Solarz met his future wife, Nina Glantz, during the campaign.
Two years later, Solarz was elected to the New York State Assembly from Brooklyn, and served for three terms. In 1974, he defeated incumbent Democratic Congressman Bert Podell in a primary.
Associated Press writer Hrvoje Hranjski in Manila contributed to this report.
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