President-elect Obama’s Labor Secretary nominee, Congresswoman Hilda Solis (D-Calif.), will face a Senate confirmation panel on Friday morning headed by one of her most ardent fans, the ailing but powerful Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee.

Hilda Solis. Photo: Ron Edmonds / AP
Hilda Solis.
Photo: Ron Edmonds / AP

Longtime GOP lions Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) could also be on hand to grill her, but the presence of Kennedy at the gavel, who presented Solis with the “Profile in Courage” award in 2000, is tangible proof that after a career spent battling Republican governors, presidents, industry lobbyists and even moderate Democrats, she could now be in the cat bird’s seat. [UPDATE: News from the hearing.]

“No one else was even going to fight for the stuff that she’s fought for her whole career. Now it’s not about fighting, it’s about governing, and I’ve seen Hilda Solis, she’s effective at governing,” said Ian Kim, director of the Green Collar Jobs Campaign at the Ella Baker Center in Oakland.

As Labor Secretary, Solis would in fact be in charge of implementing the Green Jobs Act she fought to “smuggle through” a hostile Congress and Bush administration in 2007, said green jobs guru and best-selling author Van Jones.

The act authorized $125 million annually to train 30,000 workers in environment-friendly jobs such as installing solar panels or weatherizing homes. But it went unfunded in 2008, due to opposition from manufacturers and other industry groups angered by its mandate to include organized labor.

Fast forward to a year later, with a tanking economy and a new president, and matters look decidedly more green. Obama made clear in his economic policy speech Thursday that such jobs will be a key component of his massive stimulus package. And no one is better qualified to make that happen than Solis, say her fans.

“She is the 21st century, Hilda Solis represents the future of this country both demographically, and in terms of her vision,” said Jones, who shrugged off criticism by some that the appointment was minor compared to other Cabinet posts. “We need new, clean, green jobs for the 21st century, and in her we’ve got somebody who connects both those things.”

“I think the world of Hilda,” agreed Bracken Hendricks of the Center for American Progress, the group founded by Obama transition team leader John Podesta and whose affiliated experts have been heavily involved in advising him on many of his appointments and initial policies. “She has been … one of the people on Capitol Hill who has been at the forefront of defining environmental justice … and understands very clearly the economic opportunity that can come from investing in solutions to global warming.”

In a memo to Obama’s team last month, Hendricks laid out a huge energy and environment stimulus package that included many of the elements the president-elect mentioned in his speech, including funding to train workers in green jobs. Not only should the green jobs legislation be funded, Hendricks said, but the original $125 million authorization should be at least doubled over the next two years, if not quadrupled to half a billion dollars.

Obama has not spelled out funding for specific programs, and details need to be ironed out in a Congress where lawmakers are already jockeying feverishly over pet projects in the stimulus package. A congressional staffer said mid-week that no decision has been made on funding levels for the Green Jobs Act, or even whether it will stay in place as currently enacted, or be superseded by another package.

But Jones said he is confident “it will be funded” because Obama and his allies in Congress, including Solis’ friend and ally, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), are eager to find existing programs into which they could quickly pour funds without extended battles with industry or labor groups.

Overseeing green jobs funding would be sweet victory for Solis, daughter of immigrant parents who has at times seen cherished environmental justice programs weakened if not dismembered in the face of strong industry opposition. Those battles are not necessarily over.

A spokeswoman for the National Association of Manufacturers said the group looks forward to working with Solis in a constructive fashion on workforce retraining, but have not taken a position on the current, very fluid green jobs and stimulus proposals. The issue of organized labor is a sore point.

“This is something that should broadly benefit everybody out there who lacks the skills, not just the union folks,” said NAM spokeswoman Laura Narvaiz. “A lot of our member companies aren’t unionized, they are smaller companies who have fewer resources…they’re the ones who need this kind of assistance most.”

NAM president John Engler said in a statement, “As Secretary of Labor, Rep. Hilda Solis (D-CA) will bear great responsibility helping the Obama Administration strengthen our competitiveness. We look forward to providing detailed analysis of the impact of labor legislation and proposals on American business’ ability to create and retain jobs. We appreciate her work … and we will work with her to improve educational and training opportunities for the next generation workforce.”

Obama staffers have muzzled Solis and her staff for now, but in a speech accepting the Profile in Courage award in 2000, she made clear her views on environmental justice issues and industrial opponents as she described a bitter fight to pass the nation’s first environmental justice bill. It would have required planning officials to account for commutative impacts of approving a new polluting refinery or landfill in an already heavily industrialized community like her district. She got the legislation passed, but “the influence of industry was so powerful that the legislation was vetoed by California’s former Governor (Pete Wilson).”

Solis went on to describe how she learned to compromise with industry groups.

“Two years later, California elected a new Governor (Gray Davis) and I saw a new opportunity to reintroduce new environmental justice legislation… 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 … They called it a ‘Job Killer.’ But the most original slogan was ‘The Inner City Job Killer.’ I reluctantly decided to wait another year.”

But, Solis said, “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?”

“My district is home to five 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,” she said. “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.”

Solis told her astonished staff they would be moving the bill forward that year.

“Uh oh,” one staffer recalled thinking this week, a feeling quickly followed by “great, let’s do it.”

To get it passed, though, Solis compromised, stripping out the strong zoning language and settling for general language defining for the first time the term “environmental justice” as “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 bill, largely symbolic, was nonetheless hailed as a key first step that has served as a model for state and local agencies nationwide, supporters said.

Solis has honed her skills since, shepherding through the Green Jobs Act in 2007 by teaming up with Pelosi and powerful Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to slip it into a much larger energy package, while refusing to budge on a requirement that 20 percent of the funds be set aside for the lowest income workers.

Friends and opponents alike say that Solis, 51, is a courteous but determined advocate who has learned not to back down easily.

Solis is “a very nice person, a thoughtful person, she still says thank you,” said V. John White, head of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies in Sacramento. “There’s a class in the basement of the capitol in Sacramento that legislators go to the first day in office to learn how to be assholes. She never took that class. She remembers the little people. But she’s also tough, she’s rough, and she’s fought to overcome the established powerbrokers. … She’s a progressive Latina who has prevailed in all of her elections against the boys, the bosses on the east side of L.A. and everywhere since.”

David Allgood, southern California director of the state’s League of Conservation Voters, remembers meeting Solis, then an extremely smart but shy young woman when she first ran for state office in 1992. He worried about her ability to survive hardball politics. “I thought they’d eat her alive,” he said. He laughs when he recalls her first visit back from the state capitol.

“She was transformed,” he said. “She was an aggressive, passionate reformer.”

When she couldn’t persuade fellow legislators to raise the state’s minimum wage, she took her own campaign funds and paid to have an initiative placed on the ballot that the state’s voters went on to handily approve. To win a seat in Congress, she successfully challenged a longtime Democratic incumbent, even though party leaders told her it couldn’t be done.

Her staff took their victories where they could, recalled then chief of staff Dolores Duran-Flores, now an education lobbyist, rejoicing when Gov. Wilson’s staff misplaced paperwork for an environmental bill, meaning it was in effect for two days before he vetoed it. They weren’t surprised when she fought power brokers. As a high school student in a poor, immigrant neighborhood of Los Angeles, guidance counselors had advised her to pick a vocation, that college was not the path for her, recalled Duran-Flores. She ignored them, and won grants and loans to earn her bachelor’s degree from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and a master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Southern California.

As a girl, she played with friends in the open space around Santa Fe dam, one of the few open space areas in her neighborhood, said another former staffer. As a state legislator, she won designation for California’s first urban conservancy, protecting remaining swaths of river and mountain in east Los Angeles’s heavily industrialized communities.

She is still extremely close to her parents and six siblings. “When she’s around them she is the perfect daughter, taking care of them. She is not working the room looking for attention for herself,” said the former staffer.

For those who have worked with her through the years, rejoicing in even small accomplishments, it is a thrill to see Solis given the chance to manage national labor and environmental policy.

“I couldn’t be happier for her, she’s been in the forefront of these causes for so many years” said Duran-Flores. “She never lost her integrity, she never backed down…There’s hope, there is hope, there’s truly a light at the end of the tunnel!”

Janet Wilson is a veteran journalist based in southern California, who reported on air quality and other environmental issues for the Los Angeles Times. She can be reached at janetwilson66 AT gmail DOT com.