Image: Hilda Solis
Lawrence Jackson  /  AP file
Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis was the first Latina in the California State Senate and the recipient of a JFK Profiles in Courage Award for her environmental work before being picked as an Obama administration Cabinet member.
By MSNBC Anchor
MSNBC
updated 3/18/2009 9:09:16 AM ET 2009-03-18T13:09:16
OPINION

History rarely remembers Cabinet members. The worst performers tend to get a little more shine, but even their names fade out over time. Ask political observers who will be written about decades from now (for better or worse), and they're likely to say Hillary Clinton or Tim Geithner. But my money's on another horse. I think the shining star of the Obama administration will be Hilda Solis, the new Secretary of Labor.

On the face of things, labor is the last department we should expect to yield a "shining" anything. People are out of work and underemployed. Wall Street and big business have lost credibility. The pension crisis is gathering heat, health care reform is on its way, and the fight over unionization — which made Solis' confirmation hearing a slugfest and could reshape the bargaining power and incomes of 20 million American workers — is set to rumble. In some form or another, each of those issues will fall to Solis, the first Latina cabinet member in U.S. history and my bet for Most Likely to Succeed.

To understand where she's going, you need to understand where Hilda Solis came from. The daughter of Mexican and Nicaraguan immigrants who met in a citizenship class, she was the first person in her family to go to college. Her father worked in a battery recycling plant, where he organized his coworkers for the Teamsters and endowed Solis with what became her twin political passions: labor and environmental rights. The first Latina in the California State Senate, where she won a JFK Profiles in Courage Award in 2000 for her environmental work, Solis went on to serve for eight years in Congress. In her final term, she passed the Green Jobs Act, authorizing $125 million in training for "green-collar" jobs. "This bill says to America's workers, particularly those in both urban and rural underserved communities," she said at the time, "there is a place for you in the green economy."

Solis will help with more than just labor
Just over a year later, she's been hired by a president dedicated to expanding the tenets of the Green Jobs Act into national economic policy. But Obama's reliance on Solis won't end with labor issues. She'll help him with Latinos, a potent political force that may well dominate the next 20 years. She'll offer another trusted voice on the environment. The immigration debate, currently on the back burner to the economic crisis, will ramp up soon; expect Solis to be both a big public and private player. And with domestic abuse returned to national conversation by Rihanna and Chris Brown, Solis' years of speaking out on violence against women could be a significant asset to the White House.

Solis is the twenty-fifth Labor Secretary. How many others can you remember? Frances Perkins helped broadly craft the New Deal for FDR. Arthur Goldberg became a Supreme Court Justice, George Shultz ended up Secretary of State, and Elizabeth Dole went on to the Senate and a presidential run. Solis — because of her background, because of her boss, and because of the vast array of issues that will find their way to her desk — has a chance to outshine them all.

Carlos Watson is an MSNBC anchor and a contributor to MSNBC's Morning Joe.  He's an award-winning journalist and former campaign manager and chief of staff.  You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/carloswatson.

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