Stephen Solarz was a globe-trotting Democratic congressman from New York who helped lead Democratic support of the Gulf War in 1991.
Mr. Solarz, who died of esophageal cancer on Monday at age 70, was one of the leading foreign policy experts in the House during nine terms starting in 1975. He once told a fellow congressman that foreign aid for Israel in his district was “the equivalent of getting a dam built in yours.”
But when redistricting eliminated his heavily-Jewish Brooklyn district, he lost the 1992 primary in a district where a majority of voters was black and Hispanic.
Mr. Solarz was also a loud and uncompromising voice on the Ferdinand Marcos regime in the Philippines, labeling it a “kleptocracy” for misusing U.S. foreign aid. After a tour of the Marcos palace’s basement, Mr. Solarz alerted the press to Imelda Marcos’s collection of 6,000 shoes.
“Compared to Imelda,” he announced at a 1986 press conference, “Marie Antoinette was a bag lady.”
Raised in Brooklyn, Mr. Solarz was the son of a Tammany Hall captain. He had an early interest in foreign affairs, and dropped out of law school to study government at Columbia University. After teaching political science, he worked as a campaign manager on the 1966 campaign of Mel Dubin, an anti-Vietnam activist who came within 1,000 votes of being elected to Congress. Mr. Solarz next ran for the New York State Assembly, serving three terms.
In 1974, he was elected to Congress as part of an incoming post-Watergate reform cohort. From the start he was interested in international politics, and managed to wrangle an appointment to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. His activist approach attracted notice as he paid visits to the leaders of Israel, West Germany, Syria, and Egypt.
By the mid-1980s, Mr. Solarz was a foreign policy eminence as he negotiated agreements such as an easing of restrictions on Syrian Jews. Some thought him a shadow secretary of state, a job for which his name was frequently tipped. He visited 100 countries, including Cuba and North Korea.
Mr. Solarz helped reorient U.S. policy away from the Mr. Marcos, a long-time ally, and toward his democratically-elected successor, Corazon Aquino. He also had an influence on U.S. policy toward Nicaragua and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where he helped start the process that brought Robert Mugabe to power.
In 1991, Mr. Solarz broke with the majority of House Democrats to support U.S. preparations in the leadup to the Gulf War. He was one the principle drafters of the resolution that authorized President George Bush to go to war.
But his imperious ways garnered him few friends even as his influence grew. When New York lost Congressional seats in the wake of the 1990 U.S. Census, Mr. Solarz’s district was one of them.
Mr. Solarz lost the Democratic nomination for the House in the 1992 primary to Nydia Velazquez, who is still in the House.
He was subsequently nominated as ambassador to India by President Bill Clinton. But the nomination foundered over Mr. Solarz’s links to a Hong Kong businessman and also over his role in a scandal involving the House bank, where he and his wife had hundreds of overdrafts. He was never charged with a crime in the matter but his wife, Nina Solarz, pleaded guilty to two charges of financial wrongdoing and was sentenced to probation.
Mr. Solarz went on to found APCO, an international business consultancy, as well as the International Crisis Group, which works with governments to reduce conflicts.
“I may not have much influence in Brooklyn,” he told an audience in 1991. “But they think I’m very important in Mongolia.”