Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Stephen Solarz--Redistricting, Congressional Reform, and Foreign Policy Activism

Yesterday saw the passing of former New York Democratic Congressman Stephen Solarz.  As his obituary notes, there is much to mention upon his death and much that is of interest to us here.  For example, Solarz came to Congress as a member of the famed "Class of '74."  In the aftermath of Watergate, Democrats scored huge gains in the 1974 midterms, picking up 48 House and 4 Senate seats.  As we continue to digest this year's midterms, it's always useful to go back and look at other elections that saw huge turnover.  With every wave comes a crop of new members seeking to make their mark--usually sooner rather than later.

This "Class of '74" was important institutionally as well.  As I always discuss in my class on the US Congress, the early '70's were a period of dramatic transition for the Congress.  With large numbers of ambitious new members--like Solarz--the era of the "Old Bulls" came to an end.  Strict seniority rules for choosing committee chairmanships were abolished, the subcommittee structure was expanded, and the number of party leadership positions grew.  Thus, power in Congress became much more decentralized, all to the advantage of this new crop of members.  This decentralization happened in tandem with attempts by Congress, systemically, to realign the balance of power between itself and the President.

Solarz was extremely aggressive in using his new seat, within this changing congressional context, to assert himself in the making of American foreign policy.  For each of the past 12 years I've taught a course on the role of Congress in American foreign policy.  The underlying theme for the course is that Congress--its members, structures, etc.--is for numerous reasons temperamentally uncomfortable as an active participant in foreign policy, despite its constitutional prerogatives.  Most members have little incentive, preparation, or expertise for this work.  Solarz was very much the exception to this from the onset of his career.  By the time he left Congress he was one of a small handful of members, especially in the House, who were not only involved in foreign policy but could point to tangible results of their work.

Finally, we should note that the end of his career, although no doubt affected by his role in the infamous House bank scandal, was more than anything brought about by the rough and tumble process of redistricting.  With the boroughs of New York being an ethnic mosaic unlike any other in our country, gotham districts have often been carved to create distinct constituencies with a specific ethnic flavor.  Consider this description of Solarz's 13th District, from the 1976 Almanac of American Politics:

The 13th congressional district of New York, in south central Brooklyn, might be called the Ocean Parkway district: it takes in terrain from both sides of that thoroughfare as it makes its way from Prospect Park to Coney Island.  There is a large Italian American community in Bensonhurst, most of which was removed from the district by the 1974 redistricting; still the 13th, according at least to the census figures, is one of the most heavily Italian American districts in the nation.  But most of the neighborhoods here, from Midwood in the north, through the streets lined with low rise apartments along the Parkway, to Sheepshead Bay, Brighton Beach, and Coney Island in the south, are heavily Jewish.  With Flatbush, most of which is in the 16th district, the 13th is the heart of Jewish Brooklyn.  Though no reliable data exist, the 13th is probably the nation's most heavily Jewish district, and most likely the 13th and the 16th are the only Jewish majority districts in the nation.  It is, of course, overwhelmingly Democratic by tradition.

By the 1990's, however, efforts were underway to use the redistricting process to increase minority representation.  With states like New York losing House seats in reapportionment, districts were often combined and lines radically redrawn, upsetting the ethnic balance that was in place.  Thus, Solarz was forced to run for re-nomination in 1992 in the newly drawn 12th district.  CQ's Politics in America from the time describes the result:

One certainty of New York's redistricting for the 1990s was that a second Hispanic-majority district would be created.  As a result of an ongoing influx that began just after World War II, Hispanic population had grown by 1990 to nearly a quarter of the city's total.  Yet only the South Bronx House district had sent a Hispanic to Congress.

Drawing a new Hispanic majority district, however, was no easy matter.  Unlike blacks, who often live in geographic concentrations, Hispanic immigrants settled in disparate low and middle income communities across the city's five boroughs.  Mapmakers had to go block-by-block to build a district that could reasonably assure a Hispanic's election.  The result was the 12th, one of the most unusually shaped House districts in the nation's history.  It follows a widely meandering path through parts of three New York City boroughs: Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan.

In the resulting six way Democratic primary Solarz was defeated by Nydia Velazquez, an activist in the New York Puerto Rican community.  She holds the seat to this day, having risen to the chairmanship of the House Committee on Small Business.  The district was quite radically redrawn again after the 2000 census and now includes more western and northern neighborhoods in Brooklyn.  The heart of Solarz's 13th district is now divided between the neighboring 10th and 11th.

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