By Karina Flores Hurley and Gloria Romano Barrera.
“I’m incredibly thankful to the voters of the South Florida community for the honor of allowing me to represent them every day for decades,” states Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R – FL). “It has truly been the highest honor of my life.”
Making history in 1989 as the first Cuban-American and Latina elected to Congress, she has decided to vacate her seat and venture into retirement.
Beginning her career as a Florida certified teacher in Hialeah, she was inspired to enter public service by many of the parents and students; “to fight on their behalf for a stronger educational system, lower taxes, and a brighter economic future.”
“I grew up in a household where we talked about freedom and democracy and human rights, so those were bread and butter issues,” she says. “But nobody in my family had run for office.”
It wasn’t until after eight years running a school with the help of her parents in Hialeah that she first became interested in running for office.
She and her father volunteered for a City of Miami Commissioner campaign to see whether that would be something that she liked. And that is where she was inspired.
In 1982, at 29-years-old she ran for the Florida House of Representatives and was subsequently elected at the age of 30. In 1986, she was elected to the Florida Senate becoming the first Latina to serve in either body.
In 1989, she won her congressional race, becoming the first Latina to serve in Congress.
“I wasn’t supposed to win,” she says. “We had a really heated primary and a terrible election campaign.”
Her opponent, turns out, was using her Cuban roots against her in an effort to win votes. The campaign got so hostile that she refused to debate the candidate, whose slogan was ‘It’s an American seat’.
For Ros-Lehtinen, being the first Cuban-American to ever occupy a seat in Congress is a source of pride but, most importantly, was meant for a community that felt their voices could finally be heard. For her, her election brought optimism, and a rewarding feeling of being able to improve the world.
Soon enough, she discovered that legislative work was comprised of a slow, grinding process in which people needed to work together. She never shied away from the challenge nor did she lose enthusiasm. Every day became a new adventure and she found mentors along the way.
“When I first got to Congress, although we were from different parties, Dante Fascell and Bill Lehman were gentlemen with me and we worked as a team to represent South Florida,” she shares. “It’s that bipartisan spirit that I hope Congress returns to one day.”
She was able to build a successful career while raising children. She met her husband, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Dexter Lehtinen, in the state legislature. The fact that he was a Democrat at the time (he would later change parties) didn’t keep them from forming a family, which includes Lehtinen’s two children from a previous marriage.
On the other hand, life at work wasn’t always easy. Some votes that she had to cast were tough; such as those involved with the military. Having a step-son and a daughter-in-law who served as marine officers, she’s widely aware of military life challenges.
“Anytime you vote to go to war those are always gut-wrenching moments and you hope that you make the right decision,” she says. “I know that I did.”
As she enters her last year in office, she admits that she will miss the ability to help constituents, but is hopeful about the next person to fill her seat. She continues to meet with candidates in person to talk about some of the challenges and expectations. She envisions someone that can provide opportunities for young people, be LGBTQ-friendly, and be immigration-savvy.
“Nobody can fill her shoes,” says Lincoln Díaz-Balart, who has served in Congress alongside Ros-Lehtinen for 18 years. “She’s a figure of historic proportions whose greatness will only grow with time.”
Diaz-Balart witnessed Ros-Lehtinen in action and learned from her ability to do the ‘tough work’ while remaining her sweet self. According to Diaz-Balart, her power of persuasion was so strong that she once got every member of the House to fill a questionnaire for her doctorate dissertation in education.
“She’s an inspiration,” Diaz-Balart states. “She’s a constant, never-tiring fighter for freedom and democracy.”
Five years ago, she became the first House Republican to support same-sex marriage. This took place after many years since she voted for a law that intended to do quite the opposite – to defend the concept of marriage as being between a man and a woman.
Her change in attitude regarding gay marriage has been an interesting journey. Some people think that her change of mind as it pertains to LGBTQ issues has to do primarily with her son, Rigo, who is transgender. However, she attributes her support for LGBTQ issues merely to the fact that society has also changed and evolved – and with it, her thinking about what constitutes fairness for this population segment.
“I think that most young people have helped us to become more aware of this being a matter of fairness and equality and that’s what our country stands for.” she says.
Unlike what most congressional leaders shy away from, she doesn’t have a problem with stating out loud that she believes both Republicans and Democrats have good ideas. She self-identifies as the token Republican for when both parties needed to pass bipartisan laws, especially pertaining to immigration.
“She is compassionate. She debates civilly. She has a deep sense of fairness and fights against injustice and oppression, domestically and internationally,” shares CNN Analyst Ana Navarro when asked about the Congresswoman. “She rejects bigotry and discrimination of any type. She votes her conscience and puts principles over Party when she has to. And she is very representative of her constituency and district. In normal times, she’d be a center-right Republican. In these crazy political times, some extremists call her a “Liberal”.”
According to Díaz-Balart, Ros-Lehtinen works with everyone – when there is fairness. An attack on democratic processes would also bring a leader not afraid of being straightforward yet respectful.
“Her restraint of character is unparalleled,” Díaz-Balart says. “She has personal courage and I think that’s very interesting when you combine that with the sweetness that characterizes her.”
For Navarro, Ros-Lehtinen’s legacy is as a pioneer and role model as she broke glass ceilings and has so many “firsts” to her name. “She is the first Hispanic female elected to Congress, first Republican from South Florida, first Cuban-American, first woman to chair Foreign Relations. And she did it all with grace, humor and humility and the entire time remained grounded and accessible,” shares Navarro. “I call her mi “Congress-amiga.” “For me, she has been an example on how to balance work and life, a challenge for so many of us. She was meeting with international leaders, chairing committee hearings, traveling on congressional trips around the world, but was always there for her daughters, her parents, her husband, her grandchildren and her friends. Though she’s no Martha Stewart. I don’t think she’s ever cooked a real meal in her entire adult life. Thank God she has other talents, because that woman can’t cook to save her life. She’s missing the domestic gene.”
Fleeing Cuba at eight-years-old – one of the thousand families to do so as a result of the Castro regime – her native Cuba is still a big part of her work and her sense of self. “My guiding principles have been to represent my community with integrity, honesty, and to reflect South Florida in everything I do,” she shares.
Among her work, she has sponsored the legislation for the Florida Pre-Paid College Program, which is now the largest pre-paid college tuition program in the nation. More than one million Florida families have used this program to send their children to college. Given her background in education, she has worked to strengthen the Head Start program. She has supported legislation to increase the availability to student financial aid and revise the cumbersome and complicated Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) process.
A strong advocate of programs that address domestic violence against women, she was a lead sponsor of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which increases resources towards the prosecution of domestic violence, dating violence, and sexual assault. She also supports legislation to increase criminal penalties for perpetrators of Medicare fraud.
She is the Chairman emeritus of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and is currently the Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa. In this role, she continues to voice a strong support for the state of Israel and human rights, including her opposition to Castro’s dictatorial regime in Cuba. She has led on pressing foreign policy issues including the fight against Islamist extremism, and support of free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. She also led the fight in the House of Representatives to impose sanctions on human rights violators in Venezuela. She proudly serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to help ensure our nation has the best intelligence gathering capabilities and processes to determine actionable threats.
When asked what she intends to do post-retirement, she is leaving the door open for an education-related job, such as teaching at the University of Miami, her alma mater. Or perhaps being a lobbyist for foreign affairs issues. In any case, she will be spending more time with her five grandchildren, four of whom live across the street from her Florida home. The house, she explained, was bought for her parents and it has now been passed on to her children and grandchildren. For her, “it has become a house of joy.”
After more than 25 years in Congress and more than 38 years in public service, she is most proud of helping her constituents with immigration, Social Security, or any other cases that impact their lives and have helped them resolve an issue that was crucial to their well-being. “My guiding principles have been to represent my community with integrity, honesty, and to reflect South Florida in everything I do,” she states.
Her advice to the newcomers in Congress is to “be humble about who you are and what you’re doing,” she shares. “It’s easy to get caught up in meeting heads of state and ambassadors but what really matters is working for your constituents.”
Today she hopes that the legacy she leaves behind is one of faithful service to South Florida, fighting for human rights in her native homeland of Cuba and all over the world, and helping make the lives of her constituents better.
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