USC Price School of Public Policy

President-Elect Obama Nominates SPPD Alumna Hilda Solis for Secretary of Labor

December 19, 2008

By Anna Cearley-Rivas

Hilda Solis

During a Dec. 19 press conference in Chicago, President-elect Barack Obama nominated Rep. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte) for Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor. Solis is an alumna of the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, graduating with a master’s degree in public administration in 1981.

Solis’ nomination reflects the rise of a new generation of California Hispanic politicians who have become adept at bridging the needs and demands of their diverse constituents, according to several experts at the University of Southern California.

Those qualities will come in handy as Solis faces serious challenges in the government’s efforts to keep the nation’s car companies afloat while addressing concerns from the industry’s unionized members, according to David Lopez-Lee, professor emeritus at SPPD.

“That’s likely to be the biggest issue she will initially face,” he said. “She’s not an ideologue, and she’s pragmatic in terms of getting things done. She understands the labor context, and she also understands the need to maintain a competitive marketplace.”

SPPD Dean Jack Knott said Solis has the ability to bridge these differences: “Her constellation of remarkable skills coupled with her unwavering dedication to public service is precisely what the country needs at this point in history.”

Solis received her MPA degree in 1981 from USC, after completing her undergraduate degree at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She was first elected to public office in 1985 as a member of the Rio Hondo Community College Board of Trustees, according to her Web site.

Bob Biller, former dean of SPPD, said that Solis’ ascent in politics and government – from community college trustee to Congresswoman – reflects the changes in California’s demographics and the strides made by under-represented groups.

“The most important transformation that’s been going on in California over the last generation is the increasing proportion of the state citizen population who are Hispanic, and initially there was a lot of concern that lots of Hispanics were emigrating to California but weren’t participating in political matters or civic matters,” he said.

Solis, along with other notable USC alumni, were able to debunk that myth, Biller said, by “learning how politics and bureaucracy and public policy issues work, and then immediately translating that to a very constructive career of action that has benefitted not just their constituents but the rest of us.”

Harry Pachon, president of the USC-based Tomas Rivera Policy Institute and a professor at SPPD, said Solis is “representative of the second generation of Latino leaders that have come in under different circumstances and more opportunities than the first generation.”

Among those circumstances, he noted, was the installation of term limits that allowed for more people – including Hispanics – to have a chance at elected office.

USC professor Chester A. Newland, who is a professor of public administration at SPPD, said that one of Solis’ many big achievements during her time in the California Senate was her leadership role in raising the minimum wage.

After being elected to Congress in 2000, Solis served as Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Task Force on Health and the Environment. She has also been an advocate for issues related to women, families and unions, according to information from her Web site.

“In both Sacramento and Washington, she has earned respect as a broadly balanced, self-disciplined politician,” said Newland. “In short, she became an early exemplar of Latina leadership with a strong knowledge base and multicultural understanding.”

Ross Clayton, another former dean of what is now the School of Policy, Planning, and Development, said that Solis was very focused as a USC student.

“She was one of a number of really outstanding students in that same class that have gone on to do remarkable things, ” he said. “As she finished the program she ran for a trustee position in a community college district – and won. She definitely had a sense of direction.”

One of her fellow-classmates at USC, Steve Juarez, who is associate vice president and director for state government relations at the University of California Office of the President, said that Solis’ sense of direction throughout her career has been towards the less fortunate.

Among the legislative victories Solis lists in her online biography, include banning pesticide testing on pregnant women and children, helping ensure health care access for Latinos suffering from HIV/AIDS, and providing workforce training for “green collar” jobs.

“She had very strong community roots and she was able to fuse her interest in public policy with a desire to serve people who were less fortunate than she was,” said Juarez. “I have no doubt that she will be an exemplary Secretary of Labor and that President-elect Obama saw in her the many positive attributes that she possessed as a USC graduate student — smart, ethical, passionate, and maybe most importantly, a good person,” said Juarez.