Most Saturdays in the late 1970s, college student Hilda Solis would take her younger sisters to study with her in the library at Cal Poly Pomona. When they pulled away from the family's La Puente home in her aging Volkswagen Beetle, their devoutly Catholic mother would make the sign of the cross.
As the little forest green car shuddered and struggled up steep Kellogg Hill en route to the campus, the young passengers wondered whether they would make it.
They always did. And, as most members of the large, close-knit family prepare to go to Washington for Hilda Solis' swearing-in as a member of the House of Representatives on Jan. 3, one sister finds a lot of symbolism in those determined, uphill trips of her childhood.
"We learned that, no matter what, even with roadblocks, with the support of your family, you can make it," Leticia Solis said.
Few would question that Hilda Solis, 43, born to immigrant parents and raised in one of the increasingly Latino suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley, has made it.
More than a year ago the Democratic second-term state senator from El Monte--the first Latina elected to the state Legislature's upper house--surprised political insiders by challenging an 18-year House incumbent from her own party, Rep. Matthew G. "Marty" Martinez of Monterey Park.
Some sharply criticized her, charging that she was attacking a colleague to save her own career. (Because of term limits, she would have had to leave the Senate in 2002.) Only one sitting House Democrat, Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Garden Grove, backed her in the primary, catching flak for doing so.
"I had butterflies. I'm a very cautious person," Solis said about the months she took to reach her decision to challenge Martinez.
But Solis won support from most of organized labor, a national women's fund-raising network, many local elected officials and community activists who believed that Martinez had become lazy on the job and neglected the district. Solis trounced him 62% to 29% in the March primary.
Last month, no Republican bothered to run in the strongly Democratic 31st Congressional District, a largely blue-collar area that stretches from East Los Angeles to Irwindale and Azusa and in which Latinos account for about half the voters and Asians Americans another 20%. Facing three little-known third-party candidates, Solis won the seat with 79% of the vote.
Even before she caught national party leaders' attention by taking on Martinez, Solis had been making her mark as part of the new and growing generation of Latino elected officials who are reshaping Southern California's political landscape.
Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, said Solis' recent House election cemented her reputation as one who is "willing to push the envelope."
As a state legislator--she won an Assembly seat in 1992 and two years later moved to the Senate-- the affable, unpretentious Solis was known for tenaciously pushing a liberal agenda. She has championed labor causes, women's rights (especially in the area of domestic violence), and education and health care issues, sometimes irritating Republicans who consider her a captive of the labor lobby.
Most noticed nationally has been her environmental activism, which she said was formed partly by childhood memories of the stench from the La Puente landfill. Her environmental efforts brought Solis this year's annual Profiles in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation in May. She became the first woman to win the honor, now in its 11th year.
The award led to a cover story in George--the magazine co-founded by the late John F. Kennedy Jr.--a mention in People magazine and an appearance with Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg on NBC's "Today" show.
Solis donated the $25,000 award to environmental groups but caused a brief stir in Sacramento by asking to keep the $10,000 silver lantern that came with the honor. The California Fair Political Practices Commission, after some debate, ruled that her accepting it would not violate the state's conflict-of-interest laws.
"She's going to be a national star," said Art Torres, head of the California Democratic Party.
Solis once interned in Torres' office when he was a state senator, and the two share a role model, United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta. Like Huerta, Torres said, Solis "has heart. . . . She is one of the most grounded people I know."
In contrast, on primary election night, a bitter Martinez called Solis "obnoxious," and he soon after switched to the Republican Party. (Martinez declined, through an aide, to be interviewed for this article.)
Keeping the Same Field Offices
Solis has spent much of the last few weeks saying goodbye to her Sacramento staff and interviewing people for her office in Washington. She has decided to keep the same field offices, in El Monte and East Los Angeles, to provide continuity for constituents.
Solis' husband, business owner Sami Sayyad, helped her pick out an apartment in Washington but will remain in the couple's El Monte home, to which Solis plans to return nearly every weekend. The couple have no children.
She commissioned artist Roberto Gutierrez to do a painting that superimposes the Capitol dome on a busy local intersection, with the San Gabriel Mountains in the background. She plans to hang it in her House office to remind her of her roots.
"It's very important" for elected officials to spend time in their districts, Solis said. "Otherwise you lose touch."
While at home recently, Solis posed for a Christmas card with second-graders at Alhambra's Fremont Elementary School, helped open a new post office branch in El Sereno and toured a comprehensive health and community services center in East Los Angeles.
Dropping in on a senior citizens luncheon and holiday dance in East Los Angeles, Solis briefly took the stage to address the group in Spanish, then chatted unhurriedly with well-wishers and constituents who told her about problems.
"I've always been a big believer that government, if done right, can do a lot to improve the quality of people's lives," the soft-spoken Solis said recently over lunch at Teresita's in East Los Angeles.
When then-Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed her bill to raise the minimum wage in 1995, Solis spearheaded a successful drive to put the issue before voters the next year. She pumped about $50,000 of her own campaign funds into the effort and helped win its passage.
Solis found that she had to compromise on another of her favorite causes--"environmental justice" legislation aimed at protecting low-income and minority communities from new landfills, polluting industries and other hazards. After business and manufacturing groups complained that it was too restrictive, Wilson vetoed the legislation in 1997. She tried again with a weaker version that Gov. Gray Davis signed in 1999.
Solis said that such compromising "just to keep things moving along" is her least favorite part of being a legislator. It means "sometimes having to be in the fire and not getting everything you wanted."
The measure signed by Davis, requiring local governments to consider a community's existing pollutants when deciding on new projects, is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.
"One of her skills is that she knows what is possible. Rather than push the limits and lose everything, she is able to take steps forward," said David Allgood of the California League of Conservation Voters.
One of Solis' early mentors, former Democratic Rep. Esteban Torres of Pico Rivera, attributes her success to an "important work ethic instilled in her by her parents."
First to Go to College
Born Oct. 20, 1957, to immigrants Juana (from Nicaragua) and Raul (from Mexico) Solis, who had met in citizenship classes, Hilda Solis was the third of seven children and the first to go to college.
She credits her La Puente High School counselor, Robert Sanchez, with pushing her toward higher education, even going to her family's home and helping her parents fill out financial aid applications. With the help of government grants and part-time jobs, she graduated from Cal Poly Pomona in 1979 and earned a master's degree in public administration from USC in 1981.
While in graduate school, Solis moved to Washington for an internship, then worked for the White House Office of Hispanic Affairs toward the end of the Carter administration and later for the Office of Management and Budget.
Back home in 1982, Solis became director of the California Student Opportunity and Access Program to help disadvantaged students prepare for college. She pushed her younger sisters, Beatriz and twins Leticia and Anna, to study hard, Leticia said. She saw that they fulfilled the University of California entrance requirements, took them to college fairs and enrolled them in summer academic enrichment programs.
The twins both earned engineering degrees at UCLA, and Beatriz is working on her doctorate in public health, also at UCLA.
Solis ran for the Rio Hondo Community College Board of Trustees in 1985. The slightly built Solis lost 20 pounds walking precincts. She was the top vote-getter, surpassing an incumbent and other better-known candidates. She was reelected in 1989.
In 1991, another mentor, Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, appointed her to the county Insurance Commission, giving her added visibility. Upon joining the Legislature at age 35, Solis looked so young that, despite her power suits, she was sometimes barred from the members-only elevator by operators who mistook her for a staffer.
Not everyone was enthralled, of course. Among her political opponents is conservative Sen. Ray Haynes (R-Riverside), who said that Solis is often unwilling to listen to those with opposing views and that she has lost credibility because, for the labor and environmental lobbies, "she will carry their water, no matter what."
Solis shrugged off such criticism, pointing out that she has worked well with other Republicans.
She said her favorite part of public office is working with leaders she has looked up to and "bringing services to people. The bottom line is being able to provide something good to the community, especially young children and the elderly."
'She's going to be a national star.' -- Art Torres, head of the California Democratic Party, about Hilda Solis