01/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hilda Solis: A Profile In Courage

President-Elect Obama has made an outstanding choice in selecting Hilda Solis. She's a tireless champion for working families. She understands the struggles that millions of Americans are facing, and she'll be an invaluable asset to President Obama in protecting workers' rights and restoring economic opportunity. I look forward very much to working with her on these critical issues in her new position.

Hilda has an extraordinary background in public service. She first came to my attention in 2000, when she was nominated for and won the Profile in Courage Award that year for her remarkable work as a California State Senator. The award is given annually by the Kennedy Library to persons in public life who have the quality of political courage that President Kennedy so admired.

My statement praising Solis in presenting the Profile in Courage Award to her on May 21, 2000 follows. I feel the final paragraph in the statement is true as well about Hilda's service in Congress, and will be just as true about her service as Secretary of Labor.

Our goal in these annual Profile in Courage Awards is to pay tribute to the political courage of contemporary elected officials, at whatever level of government they serve -- federal, state, or local. By doing so, we hope to encourage the American people to value the quality of courage more highly in their elected representatives.

As a young Senator in the 1950s, President Kennedy won the Pulitzer for his book about elected officials in American history who demonstrated an unusually high degree of political courage.

What he meant are political leaders who act on principle, who are willing to risk their career, to challenge prevailing views and powerful entrenched interests, in order to do what they believe is right.

I know that both President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy would be especially proud of the winner of this year's Profile in Courage Award.

When President Kennedy made his famous visit to Ireland in the spring of 1963, he spoke to the Irish Parliament and quoted one of the lines he loved best, from George Bernard Shaw -- "Some people see things as they are and say why. But I dream things that never were and say why not?"

Robert Kennedy loved those words too. In fact, he found them so inspiring that he made them the heart and the soul of his campaign for the White House in 1968 -- and those words quickly became the slogan of Bobby's campaign that year.

To me, those words have always stood for the ideal at the core of the concept of a profile in courage in our modern society. Elected officials and private citizens are constantly under enormous pressure from powerful forces in our society to get along by going along -- to support the status quo -- and avoid the risk of seeking needed change.

I think that when all of us on the selection committee for this year's Profile in Courage Award learned the story of Hilda Solis, we knew she would be the winner.

This courageous young state legislator of Hispanic heritage from California understood what my brothers meant in that beautiful quotation. She has lived her life by those words. She truly had the vision to see things that never were. She insisted on asking why not, when others refused to speak out. And best of all, she had the ability and dedication to overcome the entrenched opposition of special interest groups -- and make that change happen.

The extraordinary successes of Hilda Solis as a member of the California legislature show the power of one person with vision, ability, dedication, and courage to overcome even the most powerful forces of oppression and resistance.

As Andrew Jackson once said, "One man with courage makes a majority." And as Hilda Solis has proved, one woman with courage makes a majority too.

Her achievements for environmental justice, minority rights, workers' rights, and women's rights are outstanding. Frankly, her achievements on any one of those issues -- so uphill and against such great odds -- might well have earned her this award. But to do as well as she has done on all four of these issues is amazing -- it's truly a grand slam for profiles in courage.

In so many ways the story of Hilda Solis is the story of the fulfillment of the American dream. She's a profile in courage for her generation and for our times.

She was born in Los Angeles in 1957. Her parents were both immigrants - her father from Mexico, and her mother from Nicaragua. They met in U.S. citizenship class.

It seems as if Hilda was born to be an activist. Her junior high school teacher tells about how, when he mentioned the Bill of Rights, Hilda would ask why Cesar Chavez was being denied the right to form a union for his farm-workers.

To Hilda and her family, college seemed an impossible dream. But education is the golden door to the American dream, and Hilda found the key. Pell Grants helped bring the impossible dream within reach, and she made the most of it.

She graduated from California Polytechnic University at Pomona, and then earned a master's degree in public administration at USC. She learned the ways of Washington by serving in the White House Office of Hispanic Affairs during the Carter Administration, where she was editor of the first Hispanic newsletter published by the White House.

Back home in Los Angeles in the 1980s, she was soon elected to the Board of Trustees of a local community college. It was here, in the battle to stop the expansion of a local landfill, that she first became active on the issue of environmental justice for the residents of minority communities, and she's been a leader on the issue ever since.

As Hilda once said, "If you flew over my State Senate district, you'd think it was a war zone - the enormous garbage dumps -- the largest landfill west of the Mississippi River -- acre after acre of gigantic rock mining pits -- rocket-fuel additives polluting the ground-water."

When she took a helicopter tour of the vast area, her reaction was intense. Here is what she said: "It was disgusting. I was ashamed at the degradation of the earth, the communities, the landscape."

She dedicated herself to ending that injustice. She didn't hesitate to take on the entire Los Angeles County Sanitation District -- and all 80 local mayors who made it so powerful. And Hilda Solis has turned out to be the irresistible force that makes the immovable object move.

As a member of the California legislature, first in the State Assembly and then as the first Latina in the State Senate, she continued her leadership on environmental justice for low income communities.

Every battle was uphill. On one of her first days in the State Senate, the elevator operator told her to get off. It was reserved for State Senators, and he couldn't believe a Latina could be a Senator.

She also became renowned for her strong support for workers' rights and women's rights. One of her most impressive victories was in raising the state minimum wage to $5.75 an hour. In Congress, we haven't been able to increase the level beyond $5.15 an hour - so I've already asked Hilda to give me a minimum wage lesson.

As you all probably know, Hilda's star is continuing to rise. She's just won a landslide victory in the California primary for nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives to serve her local Congressional district -- and she's certain to be elected this fall. I just wish she were in Congress already -- we'd have been more successful this year in raising the federal minimum wage to a fair level.

As Shakespeare said, "All the world's a stage." And I know that Hilda will be a star on this new stage in her life and career of public service.