California State Senator Hilda Solis overcame the strong opposition of a former governor and the California business community to win environmental protections for minority communities.
Arguing that polluting projects were disproportionately located near minority and low-income neighborhoods, Solis successfully marshaled support for her environmental justice bill. Defined as “the fair treatment of all races, cultures, and incomes with respect to the development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws,” the first of its kind legislation won passage and was signed into law by Governor Gray Davis in October 1999.
Senator Solis was the first woman to receive the Profile in Courage Award and the first Latina ever elected to the California State Senate. Solis went on to serve in the United States House of Representatives, and now serves as Secretary of Labor in the Obama Administration.
May 22, 2000
California State Senator Hilda Solis Receives 2000 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award
Boston – Senator Hilda Solis (D-El Monte), a California state senator who overcame the strong opposition of a former governor and the California business community to win environmental protections for minority communities, was honored today by members of President Kennedy's family as the recipient of the 2000 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.
Solis was presented the prestigious award for political courage at a ceremony attended by President Kennedy's daughter Caroline Kennedy, his brother, Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), and his sister, Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith. The award ceremony was held at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum on Columbia Point in Boston. Solis, who is the first woman to receive the Profile in Courage Award, made history by becoming the first Latina ever elected to the California State Senate. She recently won the Democratic primary for California's 31st Congressional District.
"Senator Hilda Solis clearly demonstrates why the art of politics is a noble profession essential to a healthy democracy," said Caroline Kennedy, President of the Kennedy Library Foundation. "Her ability to surmount political obstacles and entrenched opposition to secure protections for a disenfranchised minority was skillful and courageous. She is a source of inspiration for those who share my father's belief that one person can make a difference, and that every person should try."
The John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award is presented annually to an elected official who has withstood strong opposition from constituents, powerful interest groups or adversaries to follow what they believe is the right course of action. The award is named for President Kennedy's 1957 Pulitzer prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, which recounts the stories of eight U.S. Senators who risked their careers to fight for what they believed in. The award is accompanied by a $25,000 stipend and a sterling silver lantern representing a beacon of hope. The silver lantern was designed by Edwin Schlossberg, Inc. and crafted by Tiffany & Co. The John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award was created by the Kennedy Library Foundation in 1989 and is presented annually, on or near May 29, in celebration of President Kennedy's birthday.
Before presenting Solis with the silver lantern, Caroline Kennedy read the following citation:
Hilda Solis has dedicated over twenty years to public life in order to make a difference for her community. Her career is characterized by a deep belief in the power of the people to make informed decisions. She is a dedicated public servant who believes that government can be a positive force to improve the quality of life for the poor and the disenfranchised.
As a young Latina woman, she entered public life when woman role models were rarer. She quickly became a pioneer and trailblazer who opened doors and dispelled myths about women in politics. Her clear sense of mission and pragmatic approach to solving problems has made her an extraordinarily productive legislator. She represents her constituents - predominantly working poor people - with determination. Her popularity with her electors is based on her demonstrated record to stand up for their issues, which frequently means a willingness to take on tough and unpopular issues.
Hilda Solis has authored landmark legislation in the areas of work conditions and environmental protections. She has been a strong advocate for women's rights, a leading author of measures pertaining to women's health, and she co-chaired a successful initiative to raise the minimum wage in California. Senator Solis also took on entrenched economic interests as she sought relief for minority communities that suffered the ill effects of haphazard enforcement of environmental laws.
The oldest daughter of immigrant parents, Hilda Solis gives deep meaning to President Kennedy's words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
Senator Solis' initial legislation on environmental justice, which was introduced into the California State Senate in February, 1997, sought a wide range of efforts to counter the disproportionate number of waste sites and polluting factories in poor neighborhoods, many with large numbers of Latinos or African Americans. Solis' own district is home to eight landfills, a federal Superfund toxic waste cleanup site and several mines and factories, many near schools.
The legislation was vetoed by then-Governor Pete Wilson who sided with the strong business lobby opposed to additional environmental regulations. Described by one account as a politician who "hasn't shied away from challenging the old boy network both within and without the Latino community," Solis refused to give up and reintroduced new environmental justice legislation to the state legislature. Arguing that polluting projects were located near minority and low-income neighborhoods in disproportionate numbers, Solis successfully marshaled support for the environmental justice bill. Defined as "the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, and incomes with respect to the development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws," the new legislation won passage and was signed into law by Governor Gray Davis in October 1999. The legislation is the first of its kind.
Hilda Solis was born on October 20, 1957 in Los Angeles, California. She attended La Puente High School and went on to receive her bachelor's degree from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and a master's degree in Public Administration from the University of Southern California.
Solis served in the White House Office of Hispanic Affairs during the Carter administration. She also served as a management analyst for the U.S. Office of Management and Budget in Washington, D.C. Solis was elected to the Rio Hondo Community College Board of Trustees in 1985 and 1989.
In 1992, Solis was elected to the California State Assembly, and in 1994, she was elected to the California State Senate representing California's 24th Senatorial District. Solis was re-elected in November 1998.
On March 7, 2000, Senator Solis won the Democratic primary for her U.S. Congressional District, receiving 69% of the votes cast. Solis upset 18-year incumbent Representative Matthew G. Martinez (D-CA) in her bid to represent California's 31st District in Washington. No Republican is running for the seat.
Solis is married to Sam Sayyad, a small business owner in Irwindale, CA.
Past recipients of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award are former U.S. Congressman Carl Elliott, Sr. of Alabama; former U.S. Congressman Charles Weltner of Georgia; former Governor of Connecticut Lowell Weicker; former Governor of New Jersey James Florio; U.S. Congressman Henry Gonzalez of Texas; former U.S. Congressman Michael Synar of Oklahoma; former Calhoun County, Georgia School Superintendent Corkin Cherubini; Circuit Court Judge of Montgomery County, Alabama Charles Price; Garfield County, Montana Attorney Nickolas C. Murnion; and 1999 co-recipients U.S. Senators John McCain of Arizona and Russell Feingold of Wisconsin. In December, 1998, a special Profile in Courage Award was presented to eight political leaders of Northern Ireland and former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, the chairman of the peace talks, in recognition of the extraordinary political courage they demonstrated in negotiating the historic Good Friday Peace Agreement.
This year's recipient of the 11th John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award was selected by a nine-member committee whose chairman is John Seigenthaler, Chairman of the Freedom Forum at the First Amendment Center, Vanderbilt University. The committee's other members are: David Burke, former executive vice president of ABC News and former president of CBS News; Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children's Defense Fund; Antonia Hernandez, President of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund; Edward M. Kennedy, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts; Caroline Kennedy, author, attorney, and president of the Kennedy Library Foundation; David McCullough, historian and author of the Pulitzer prize-winning biography Truman; Alan Simpson, former U.S. Senator of Wyoming, and director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government; and Olympia Snowe, U.S. Senator from Maine.
The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum is the nation's official memorial to President John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States. The Kennedy Library is a presidential library administered by the National Archives and Records Administration and supported, in part, by the Kennedy Library Foundation, a non-profit organization. The Kennedy Library and the Kennedy Library Foundation seek to promote, through educational and community programs, a greater appreciation and understanding of American politics, history, and culture, the process of governing and the importance of public service.
Tom McNaught (617) 514-1662
I am truly humbled. Receiving the Profile in Courage award is the greatest honor that has ever been bestowed upon me. This award is very meaningful to me because I have always admired President Kennedy and have the deepest respect for his work. His dedication and commitment to public service was a catalyst for many of us to enter into the field of politics. He was an inspiration to me personally, and he restored hope to so many others that had lost faith in government.
President Kennedy has always had an impact on my life. In fact, a few years ago I was asked by one of my local airports to donate something meaningful to me, including a quote, so that they could display it for public view. I selected a quote by President Kennedy because it is so compelling to me as a public servant.
“Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."
I am proud to have been selected for this prestigious award because of my work on environmental justice issues - a life long passion of mine.
Justice is not available to all equally; it is something that many of us must struggle to achieve. As an elected official, I know that fighting for what is just is not always popular but it is necessary; that is the real challenge that public servants face and it is where courage counts the most. Without courage, our action or inaction results in suffering of the few and injustice for all.
Sometimes working on issues of justice can be emotionally painful. When I feel defeated, I remind myself of the tremendous struggle for justice that Cesar Chavez, the late President of the United Farm Workers, endured throughout his life. As Cesar eloquently stated:
"We are confident. We have ourselves. We know how to sacrifice. We know how to work. We know how to combat the forces that oppose us. But even more than that, we are true believers in the whole idea of justice. Justice is so much on our side, that that is going to see us through."
Members of President Kennedy's family, Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, family and friends, I am honored and privileged to accept this award on behalf of the families and children who suffer every single day of their lives from negative environmental hazards. Today, they will not suffer alone, their plight has been recognized nationally, and maybe now we can work to provide them with hope, protection and most of all, justice. I share this award with them.
I am especially honored to be joined by Senator Kennedy who is the champion of working families in our country. Thank you for being the voice of homeless America, impoverished America, disabled America. You are an inspiration.
When I received a call from Caroline Kennedy informing me that I had been selected as the recipient of this extraordinary award, I was absolutely astonished. I was stunned and surprised to receive a personal telephone call from Caroline, who is every bit as graceful, charming and remarkable as most of us only read about.
When Caroline conveyed to me that I was the first woman to receive this award, I felt even more inspired for what this symbolized for women, especially, women of color. Women often face multiple barriers in their professional life, like racism, sexism, and discrimination. As we overcome these barriers, my belief in democracy, equal protection under our Constitution and liberty for all is reinforced. It gives me great hope to see women of all races and backgrounds, not only breaking the glass ceiling, but shattering it.
As I think about the challenges women must face in politics and their emerging roles in our government, I am reminded of the words of President John F. Kennedy:
"What really counts is not the immediate act of courage or of valor, but those who bear the struggle day in and day out - not the sunshine patriots but those who are willing to stand for a long period of time."
Women are entering into the field of politics in larger numbers and their impact on policy can be seen in so many different ways. Protecting battered women, addressing childcare issues, and improving the work environment for women, are all areas they have had an enormous impact on.
It is critical to hear the voices of women in our policy making process. Many women leaders fight for these causes and incrementally, change does happen, it just takes a long period of time.
As the first Latina ever elected to the California State Senate, I represent a community that has been historically disenfranchised and sometimes used as political scapegoats for the benefit of a few. I serve as their voice and as such, I have been embroiled in some of the most controversial issues facing the nation; raising the minimum wage, protecting immigrants from sweatshop enslavement, and affirmative action. Now, I am fighting for environmental justice.
What is environmental justice? Actually that is the first question that I am asked when people hear I received this award. So, what is it? What does it mean?
Environmental Justice is "the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, and incomes with respect to the development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
The need to address environmental justice is exemplified not only in California, but also throughout our country. In 1994, President Clinton signed executive order 12898 which requires the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) to address issues of environmental justice.
Nationally, one in seven Americans who live below the poverty level, live within two miles of a medical waste incinerator.
California has had the highest number of toxic chemical accidents in the nation.
In the community that I represent, there are numerous examples of environmental hazards. If you were to take an aerial tour, it looks like a war zone. The mining industry has created enormous gaping holes, including a 500 acre pit, which from the air, makes the cities I represent look like Swiss cheese.
My district is home to 5 major landfills including the largest landfill in the Western USA; our water basin has been a Superfund site for over two decades; and there are over 17 mining pits in the region that contribute to high levels of air pollution. The environmental hazards are devastating and create real health hazards to the residents of these communities.
I first introduced legislation to address environmental justice back in 1997, knowing that I would face stiff opposition from business. The influence of industry was so powerful that the legislation was vetoed by California's former Governor.
Two years later, California elected a new Governor and I saw a new opportunity to reintroduce new environmental justice legislation. It was not going to be easy, but I had to try again. The oil companies, mining companies, and other business organizations had a sophisticated and well-financed lobbying campaign against my bill. They argued that my proposal would hit at the core of our state's economy and drive jobs out of the state.
The opposition was creative in their arguments against my bill. They called it a "Job Killer.” But the most original slogan was 'The Inner City Job Killer."
After months of negotiations, no compromise was reached. I reluctantly decided to wait another year before we would try to move the bill forward. With such fierce opposition, the outcome of the legislation was in jeopardy.
As I returned to my district, I saw again the immediate need for environmental justice. I asked, why should these communities have to wait another year? I made the critical decision to move the bill forward. I met with all the interested parties and stated that I wanted the bill to be sent to the Governor this year, for his signature. I was going to push forward, with or without their support.
After several hours of deliberations a compromise was reached. The bill was not as strong as I wanted it to be, but I knew the importance of getting a bill on environmental justice passed. Though the opponents felt that the compromise was still not acceptable, they formally removed their opposition. They, of course, would have preferred no legislation. In the end the Governor signed the bill.
As a result of these efforts, a monumental change occurred in California. Senate Bill 115 became the first environmental justice law in California. It will pave the way for more laws on this issue in the future. The new law requires the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to adopt environmental justice standards. It also identifies the Office of Planning and Research as the coordinating agency for the entire state.
Has California solved our environmental justice problem? No, but state agencies can no longer ignore the issue again!
Environmental justice has yet to be achieved. We have not won the battle. Landfills are still being proposed in these communities. Many families in poor neighborhoods continue to have polluted water. Our children continue to breathe polluted air.
Since the enactment of my legislation, there have been several new bills introduced in California that either directly or indirectly relate to environmental justice. We have gone a long way, but there are still many challenges ahead of us. This award has given the issue of environmental justice the recognition it deserves. For that, I am grateful.
I want to take this opportunity to thank my family, especially my husband, my parents, Raul and Juana Solis, and my sisters and brothers for all of their support over the years. They have always believed in me and have been my source of strength.
My parents came to this country as immigrants and taught me my values and commitment to issues of justice and equality. They told me to fight for what I believed in and to never give up. I attribute my success to them.
Again, to the Kennedy Family and Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, muchisimas gracias, I am truly honored for this award.
Remarks delivered by California State Senator Hilda L. Soils at the 2000 Profile in Courage Award Ceremony, May 22, 2000.
I'm honored to be here today with Hilda Solis, the California State Senator and nominee for Congress who is the winner of this year's Profile in Courage Award.
Our goal in these annual Profile in Courage Awards is to pay tribute to the political courage of contemporary elected officials, at whatever level of government they serve -- federal, state, or local. By doing so, we hope to encourage the American people to value the quality of political courage more highly in their representatives.
Elected officials and private citizens are constantly under enormous pressure from powerful forces in our society to get along by going along - to support the status quo -- and avoid the risk of seeking needed change.
As a young Senator in the 1950's, President Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for his book about elected officials in American history who defied that pressure and demonstrated an unusually high degree of political courage. What he meant are political leaders who act on principle, who are willing to risk their career and challenge powerful entrenched interests, in order to do what they believe is right.
As Andrew Jackson once said, "One man with courage makes a majority." And as Hilda Solis has proved, one woman with courage makes a majority too.
The extraordinary success of Hilda Solis in the California legislature shows the power of one person with vision, ability, dedication, and courage to overcome even the strongest forces of oppression and resistance.
Her achievements are outstanding on cutting-edge contemporary issues such as environmental justice, worker's rights, minority rights, and women's rights. In so many ways, Hilda Solis has turned out to be the irresistible force that makes the immovable object move.
Hilda Solis eminently deserves this Profile in Courage Award. President Kennedy would be proud of her -- and so will the House of Representatives when she arrives in Congress next January.
Remarks delivered by Senator Edward M. Kennedy on presenting the 2000 Profile in Courage Award, MAY 22, 2000