By Alana Semuels and Maeve Reston
Onetime Los Angeles-area congresswoman Hilda L. Solis is stepping down as President Obama's secretary of Labor to return home, a move seen as a potential first step to a bid for the county Board of Supervisors.
In a letter Wednesday to Labor Department employees, Solis, 55, said that after spending time with family over the holidays, she had decided to "begin a new future, and return to the people and places" she loves.
Supervisor Gloria Molina will be forced from office next year by term limits. Her seat has historic import for local Latinos: Molina's election in 1991 came after balloting ordered by a federal judge who ruled that the all-Anglo board at the time had diluted the voting power of Latinos by splitting the community among three districts. Molina was the first Latino elected to the board in modern times and its first elected woman member.
Before joining Obama's Cabinet, Solis was a member of Congress and a California legislator, serving eight years in each position. In a move that could help clear the way for Solis, Los Angeles labor leader Maria Elena Durazo said Wednesday that she would vigorously encourage her to run for the board.
"She has been a champion for workers and has never been afraid of speaking out for workers, especially on health and safety and wage issues," said Durazo, the powerful executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.
Durazo says she believes that if Solis runs for Molina's seat, the county's labor leaders will quickly fall in line behind her, which could chase other candidates from the field.
For many Latinos in Los Angeles, Durazo said, it will be important to retain the seat. Solis has discussed a run with a number of political allies.
"There's so many things that the Board of Supervisors have yet to accomplish, and I think ... she will do a magnificent job," Durazo said. "Who knows -- after that there's a U.S. Senate seat, there's statewide office. I think the door is wide open for her."
The child of two immigrants who both belonged to labor unions, Solis has long been known for pursuing health and safety cases that affected workers in California, and expanding outreach to Spanish-speaking workers.
While that reputation could serve her well if she runs for supervisor, Solis did little to enhance her standing while in the Obama Cabinet. Some union leaders say privately that she could have been a bigger advocate for the working class.
When sworn into office as Labor secretary in 2009, Solis pledged to fight for "long-abused workers," telling them there was "a new sheriff in town." She vowed to add 250 workers to the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division, which investigates businesses for unfair wage practices, because it had been cut by the George W. Bush administration.
But that's about all she did, said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at UC Santa Barbara. Successful Labor secretaries use the position as a bully pulpit to talk about issues affecting workers, he said. Solis, by contrast, was quiet on many issues facing workers.
"She's been kind of underwhelming," he said. "Hilda Solis was not a player in representing labor or the administration in some of these big issues."
To be sure, Solis confronted a difficult environment, with the economy making hiring difficult and an administration focused for much of the time on pushing healthcare reform. After the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easier to unionize, stalled in Congress in 2009, the White House seemed to give up on labor issues, Lichtenstein said. The administration did not comment loudly on efforts to strip collective bargaining from public employee unions in Ohio and Wisconsin, or on the teacher's strike in Chicago, where unions battled with Obama's former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.
"Like so many things with this administration, we had high hopes, but not much was realized," said Chris Townsend, political action director of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, a left-leaning union. "I'm not sure what is it that I'm supposed to remember is her great legacy for the days she was there."
In her letter to colleagues, Solis said she was proud of moving 1.7 million people through federally funded job training programs, and of the way her department allocated $67 billion in unemployment benefits and job-training funds from the stimulus act. She said her department had conducted the largest number of investigations into wage and hour complaints in recent memory and collected the most back wages in the department's history, and that fatalities in construction and general industry were at historic lows.
The president praised Solis on Wednesday as a "tireless champion for working families."
"Over the last four years, Secretary Solis has been a critical member of my economic team as we have worked to recover from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and strengthen the economy for the middle class," Obama said in a statement.
Solis' departure leaves the Obama administration in a difficult position. Labor was instrumental in helping to reelect Obama, and labor leaders will want a Cabinet member who will draw attention to declining wages and working conditions. But conservatives will want to see a nominee who listens to the needs of businesses as they hire more workers.
"Who Obama chooses -- not only to replace the Labor secretary -- but also to replace the vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board -- are among the most important decisions that he's going to make," said John Alan James, executive director of the Center for Global Governance, Reporting and Regulation at Pace University. James said Obama's current slate of labor officials had been too unfriendly to business.
The Obama administration has not signaled who will replace Solis, although Washington insiders say two women could be on the short list: Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan, and Mary Beth Maxwell, a senior advisor in the Labor Department who was on the short list for the position in 2009.
(c)2013 the Los Angeles Times