Labor Pick’s 2000 Win Called ‘Wake Up Call’

Dec 18, 2008 3:13pm

ABC News’ Teddy Davis Reports: In choosing Rep. Hilda Solis to be his Secretary of Labor, Barack Obama has tapped a California Democrat who hails from the party’s resurgent left.

Solis was elected to Congress in 2000 by defeating Rep. Matthew Martinez, an 18-year congressional veteran, in a California Democratic primary.

Martinez had run afoul of organized labor on trade. He supported fast-track trade authority which empowers the president to negotiate trade agreements that Congress can approve or disapprove but cannot amend. He had also angered women’s groups by backing a late-term abortion ban.

Solis, who was serving in the state senate at the time, outraised Martinez and benefited from the shoe-leather support of union members, clobbering him by an eye-popping 62-29 percent margin.

With the Democratic nomination in hand in her liberal and heavily Latino East Los Angeles district, the general election was a walk for Solis.

Former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez told ABC News on Thursday that the Solis challenge to Martinez in 2000 constituted a political "wake-up call."

Nunez, who was serving as political director of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor at the time, says he still remembers former House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt trying to dissuade labor from getting behind Solis, saying that it would rob national Democrats of resources they needed for general-election races against Republicans.

"It was a wake up call for incumbent members of Congress. They learned that if they don’t work their district, someone is going to challenge them. Someone is going to be in the hunt for their seat," said Nunez.

Two months after her head-turning congressional win, Solis was awarded the Profiles in Courage Award from the JFK Library Foundation for her prior work in Sacramento  on the environment.

Believing that polluting projects were disproportionately located near minority and low-income neighborhoods, Solis wrote legislation which requires the state to consider the fair treatment of all races, cultures, and incomes with respect to the development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws. Her first-of-its-kind legislation was signed into law in October 1999.

Since coming to Congress, Solis has continued to style herself as a supporter of "fair trade, not free trade," and her website touts her opposition to "any trade agreement which does not include strong, labor, environmental, and human rights protections."

The formal announcement of Solis as Labor Secretary will likely come Friday from the Obama transition team.

ABC News’ Sunlen Miller contributed to this report.

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