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  • Mike Martinez

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

In a 2014 National Journal article, Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wrote about “how I learned to love my firstness.” Her “firstness” referred to her distinction as the first woman of Hispanic heritage to win a seat in the United States House of Representatives. She recalled appearing on the Today television show shortly after she won a special election to fill the seat of a legendary Florida congressman, Claude Pepper, who had died in office.

“I was taken aback when I was asked how it felt to be the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress,” Ros-Lehtinen wrote. “‘I don’t think that is correct,’ I said, ‘but I’m glad to have won.’ Katie Couric interrupted and said, ‘Oh, trust me, we did the research, and you are indeed the first Latina in Congress.’ Well, OK. No pressure, right?”

I recap the first Latina’s life and career in my on-going book, Congressional Lions.

She was born Ileana Ros y Adato in Cuba on July 15, 1952. Her family immigrated to the United States when Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. She originally pursued a career in education before turning to politics in 1982, when she won a seat in the Florida House of Representatives. She married Dexter Lehtinen, a prominent attorney and state legislator in 1984. In 1988, Ros-Lehtinen won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first Cuban American, as well as the first Latina, to serve in Congress.

A staunch Republican, Ros-Lehtinen argued for conservative social legislation and reduced American activism in foreign policy. Among her many positions during more than a quarter century in the House, she supported drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, extending the USA Patriot Act, and prohibiting the use of federal funding for stem cell research. In one area, however—lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights—she was a strong Republican voice for non-discrimination. In 2006, Ros-Lehtinen, an ardent anti-Castro legislator, generated controversy when she appeared in a documentary saying, “I welcome the opportunity of having anyone assassinate Fidel Castro and any leader who is oppressing the people.”

In light of her ethnicity, Ros-Lehtinen passionately addressed immigration issues, although she contended that comprehensive reform was a misguided approach. “I support the process” of immigration reform, she remarked in a 2014 interview, but she was skeptical that change could be accomplished in a single package. “Immigration is a very complicated issue. It can’t be done comprehensively. Nothing can any more. It has to be in pieces that are discussed and voted on—piecemeal.”

As she approached her third decade as a member of Congress, Ros-Lehtinen announced her retirement from elective office. Some observers wondered whether she was frustrated with the Trump administration and its chaotic policy initiatives. It was no secret that the congresswoman had been a prominent opponent of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. In an era of increasing political polarization, Ros-Lehtinen also appeared to be a throwback to a bygone era. Although a proud Republican, she was best described as a moderate who was never afraid to reach across the aisle in search of legislative solutions. She even described Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a well-known Democratic activist and former chair of the Democratic National Committee, as a “dear friend,” despite their political disagreements.

In an interview she granted shortly after she announced her retirement in April 2017, Ros-Lehtinen explained that she was not stepping down because of her disagreements with the administration, nor did she fear a contentious reelection bid in 2018. “It’s been such a delight to serve our community for so many years and help constituents every day of the week,” she said. “We just said, ‘It’s time to take a new step.’”

Whatever her motivations, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen headed into retirement secure in the knowledge that she had represented her district to the best of her ability. One commentator remarked on her legacy: “Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen is the model of the Latina who can’t be stereotyped.”

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