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Save the Solis Nomination

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February 9, 2009

Hilda Solis is not a "toxic asset" in the Obama administration's personnel portfolio.

In fact, the small-business tax troubles of the California congresswoman's husband--which Republican partisans, nervous-nelly Democrats and media elites who cannot see the forest for the trees imagine as a Cabinet disqualifier--confirm that Solis has precisely the real-world experience that is going to be required in a White House that seeks to tip balance away from Wall Street and toward Main Street.

Republican senators are holding up President Obama's nomination of Solis to serve as his Secretary of Labor because they imagine they can score politics points by attacking her as a "tax cheat" and potentially blocking another Democratic Cabinet pick.

Last week's withdrawal of Tom Daschle as the president's nominee to serve as Secretary of Health and Human Services, which came after it was revealed that the former Senate majority leader had failed to pay more than $140,000 in taxes (probably a lot more), was a blow to the new president's image as a change agent. And it built on the narrative being developed by Republicans that Obama is surrounded by hustlers--including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and another withdrawn nominee, Nancy Killefer, who had been slated to serve in the newly created position of Chief Performance Officer--who have no qualms about raising taxes because they don't pay them.

But senators who would compare the tax troubles of the Solis family with accounting gimmicks of high fliers like Daschle or Geithner are creating a false construct that reveals everything about their own myopic understanding of the current economic crisis--and their unsettling inability to distinguish the abuses of Wall Street from the challenges of Main Street.

No one is going to get very far arguing that Daschle or Geithner are anything but what the average American sees: powerful insiders, with legions of accountants and tax lawyers, who by just about every evidence were gaming the system in order to pad their personal bank accounts.

The tax bills Daschle and Geithner were avoiding added up to more than tens of millions of American families earn in a year. These men move in worlds far removed from the grassroots experience of the citizens they purport to serve.

With Solis, it's the opposite. The daughter of immigrants from Nicaragua and Mexico who was the first member of her family to go to college (and got in as part of a program to aid low-income students), and when she got out she went to work helping disadvantaged kids finish high school and get into community colleges. As a state legislator and a member of the US House of Representatives, Solis has represented working-class neighborhoods and immersed herself in the sort of immigration, labor and small business issues that mark her as a uniquely well-qualified nominee for Labor Secretary. She has, as well, remained far more linked than most of Obama's Cabinet picks to people who get their hands dirty working - including her husband.

Where Daschle was in trouble for failing to pay taxes on the estimated value of two years of luxury car services that were equivalent to income totaling $255,256, Solis's husband runs Sam's Foreign and Domestic Auto Center, a car-repair shop in the anything-but-elite community of Irwindale, California--home of several rock quarries and the Irwindale Speedway.

Sam Sayyad owned Los Angeles County $6,468 in back taxes, which he paid up when the issue of his liens arose last week. According to Anthony Yakimowich, the chief deputy treasurer and tax collector for the county, there was no indication that Sayyad was trying to avoid paying taxes. As Yakimowich told the Los Angeles Times, small businesses often have honest disputes with the county over taxes and--especially these days--often experience financial difficulties that can lead to delays in payments.

In other words, Sayyad's experience is like that of a lot of small-business owners in a country where the good breaks invariably go to large corporations, just as the hard knocks go to the little guys and gals who try to compete with them. Sayyad fell a little behind in paying his taxes, and that was wrong. But to compare a few thousand dollars in tax liens owed by a fellow who fixes broken-down cars in Irwindale with a few hundred thousand dollars in avoided taxes owed by a former senator who cruises around Washington in the back seat of a limousine is worse than absurd. It represents a complete loss of perspective by those who engage in political gamesmanship of the creepiest sort.

Hilda Solis has had experiences that are very different from most of the people with whom she would serve in Barack Obama's Cabinet. But her experiences are not so very different from those of working Americans, including the small business owners who struggle to get by on main streets in cities and towns across this country--communities that look and feel a lot more like Irwindale than Washington. That is what makes Hilda Solis such an attractive nominee.

In fact, far from disqualifying Solis, the minor tax troubles related to her husband's small business confirm the congresswoman as a more attractive nominee than most of those advanced by Obama. Those members of the Senate who fail to recognize this fact--and their amen corner in the media--are merely confirming the extent to which they are dramatically disconnected with the experience of working Americans.

Barack Obama made the right pick when he chose Hilda Solis to serve as his Secretary of Labor. The president should not be dissuaded by the silly spin that would equate the circumstances of a Tom Daschle with those of Hilda Solis. Obama and his allies in the Senate need to inject a measure of perspective--along with realism--into the Washington discourse by demanding that this worthy nominee be confirmed before the week is done.
Copyright © 2008 The Nation
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John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Online Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

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