Ortiz in Congress
Early Life – Overview:
The child of a migrant family, Congressman Solomon P. Ortiz was born in Robstown, Texas.
When he was a young man, he had a host of odd jobs, including one as a shoe-shine boy and another as a “printer’s devil” at The Robstown Record. (They were called printer's devils because they applied the ink to the letter press and came away very dirty.) Even at a young age, he was most impressed with the law enforcement officers who befriended him then. Through them, Ortiz became fascinated with the law and law enforcement as he grew older.
He was elected to Congress in 1982 and has since served South Texas in the U.S. Congress. He has enduring memories of his family's life from his early childhood, an experience that often leads him to view the questions of poverty, budget and health care before Congress through a prism of personal experience. He is a Democrat, conservative on social issues and progressive on fiscal policy.
At age 16, Ortiz' father died and he dropped out of school to help his mother pay the bills for their family. Shortly after that, Ortiz joined the Army because, as he put it, "It was the one place that would give me free room and board and let me send my check back home to my Mother." It was in the Army that Ortiz, ever conscious of the need for an education, got his GED.
Ortiz received his basic training at Fort Hood, Texas and was sent overseas to Verdun and Vitry Le Francois, France for his tour of duty. During an inspection one day during Ortiz' duty in Verdun, France, the officer inspecting his barracks found books on investigative procedures and police techniques.
Ortiz was asked if he was interested in police work. He enthusiastically told his commander he was, and found himself reassigned to the 61st Military Police Company, Criminal Investigation Office, a move that would color much of his future professional life. He remained an investigator for the duration of his tour of duty, receiving his advanced military police training at Fort Gordon, Georgia.
When Ortiz returned to South Texas after his Army service, he was persuaded by friends and contemporaries to run for the office of County Constable because of his law enforcement experience in the Army. His first campaign for public office was a classic case of political naiveté smashing into a wall of political reality in 1964, the last election year before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 abolished literacy tests and poll taxes.
After making the decision to run for Constable, Ortiz began making the rounds to gain support and to offer his message of justice to voters. One day a man asked him when he had filed for the office. Unaware of the formalities of a political campaign, Ortiz went to the County Clerk that day to file his candidacy. After filling out the papers for office, he was asked for the $600 filing fee. Surprised, and somewhat destitute, Ortiz asked if he could bring the fee by later.
That evening, in a candid discussion with his mother, he was visibly moved by her offer to take out a $1,000 loan to bankroll the campaign -- $600 for his filing fee, and the balance to help offset the poll tax for Hispanic voters whose priority was putting food on the table.
At his first election party, certain he would lose and afraid of how he would deal with the embarrassment, Ortiz left his friends to go to his car to monitor election returns. Suddenly, he heard his friends running towards his car. They had come to tell him he had succeeded in his first election by making it into the runoff. He defeated the incumbent Constable in the runoff election.
Ortiz learned the fine art of South Texas politics at the municipal level in Nueces County over the next 17 years, serving as Constable until 1968, when he successfully ran to serve on the County Commissioners Court. He served as County Commissioner until 1976, when he was elected Nueces County Sheriff. There he made a reputation as a tough, but fair lawman, a move that brought him back to law enforcement, his political trademark.
In the 1982 redistricting of Congressional District boundaries, a three judge Federal Panel created the 27th District of Texas, a new seat along the Gulf Coast of South Texas.
Ortiz ran for Congress on a platform of bringing jobs to South Texas and increasing the focus on access to education for South Texans, who live in an area of the country with traditionally high unemployment rates. He represents a district with diverse demographics and a variety of industry including: petrochemicals, shrimping and Gulf fishing, tourism, oil rigging, water transport, agriculture and service industries, as well as a large military complex.
In Congress, Ortiz turned his love of law enforcement into a love of law-making. He was assigned to the House Armed Services Committee and the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee (today, the House Resources Committee). Four military bases in the Coastal Bend area and the historic tug of war over water (and other natural resources in the American west) make these committee assignments uniquely suited to South Texas.
Members of Congress, who are players in the policy-making apparatus in the House of Representatives, learn early that nobody can know everything about all the issues, so they find a specialty in a particular arena. Ortiz is among this faction of House Members; his specialty is defense policy, particularly issues facing the readiness of the U.S. armed forces. He is currently the Ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Readiness.
Ortiz has emerged in the past decade as an ambassador-without-portfolio, leading trade delegations repeatedly to the Pacific Rim to rustle up opportunities for industry to re-locate to South Texas - a move to bring jobs to the area.
Throughout his Congressional career, Ortiz has made a reputation as a fair-minded advocate who works easily with both Republicans and Democrats when making policy. It was his own reputation as an honest broker that set him apart from others when control of the House shifted to the Republicans in 1994. Suddenly, it was the Republicans who were in the driver's seat of making policy and everyone's memory of past slights with Democrats was very fresh. Ortiz remained close to the Republicans he had worked with before, only now they were committee chairmen and power brokers.
Ortiz remains one of the hardest-working Members of Congress, as a senior member of 2 important committees, co-chair of the Border Caucus, co-chair of both the House Depot Caucus and Naval Mine Warfare Caucus, and as Dean of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Texas House Democrats.