From the start, and even before the hyphen, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen shattered glass ceilings.
She was the first Hispanic woman elected to the Florida House and Senate, and the first state lawmaker to serve while expecting. She also became the first Cuban-American ever to win a job in the U.S. Congress — a post she’s held onto for nearly 30 years even as her party shifted to the right and her constituency moved to the left.
So, while the Sunday announcement of her retirement came as a surprise to many, Ros-Lehtinen’s decision not to seek reelection in 2018 is somewhat fitting for a politician who often did things her own way. In a field where so many learn their political career is over after it’s already ended, the 64-year-old congresswoman is stepping away on her own terms, putting a bow on a career that directly touched thousands of lives.
“We must recall that ‘to everything there is a season, and time to every purpose under the heaven,’” she said in a statement. “The most difficult challenge is not to simply keep winning elections; but rather the more difficult challenge is to not let the ability to win define my seasons.”
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Ros-Lehtinen’s announcement prompted an outpouring of support Sunday from both sides of the aisle — remarkable in an era of hyper-partisanship. Over nearly four decades in office, she passed legislation that helped thousands of teenagers go to college and fought for LGBTQ rights. She also helped propel the careers of some of Miami’s best-known politicians, and endeared herself to a diverse community.
“Not only is Ros-Lehtinen a tireless advocate for freedom & human rights - she is my friend. Florida will miss her,” U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, who interned with the congresswoman 26 years ago, wrote Sunday on Twitter.
Perhaps best known as a Cuba hardliner, Ros-Lehtinen was born in Havana in 1952 and fled to Miami with her family when she was eight years old. She graduated from Southwest Miami High School and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Florida International University and later a doctorate from the University of Miami.
After a start as a teacher’s assistant for Miami-Dade County schools, she opened the private Eastern Academy in Hialeah in 1978, where she worked as both a teacher and principal for eight years. Elected to the Florida House in 1982, she said stories of financial hardship from her students’ parents led her to run for state office.
She teamed up with Stanley Tate during her time as a state lawmaker and sponsored the legislation for the Florida Prepaid College Program. The congresswoman is directly responsible for “providing college access for literally thousands and thousands of students who otherwise wouldn’t have gone to college,” said Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.
“We’re losing a great leader who struck a fine balance between local, state and international issues, never losing herself in the issues and often following her heart and her conviction above the party ideology on a number of issues,” he said, adding that the congresswoman also helped broker important meetings for school district officials and bring home education grants.
While serving in the state legislature, Ileana Ros married fellow lawmaker Dexter Lehtinen, establishing the foundations of a power couple. By the time she announced her run for congress in 1989, Lehtinen had risen to become Miami’s U.S. attorney. Around the same time, Democratic Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, thought to be a leading rival for the post, came under investigation by Lehtinen’s office. (Lehtinen recused himself from the case right around the time his wife became a candidate. Martinez’s conviction was overturned on appeal.)
It was a vicious election waged during a time when Miami was still grappling with shifting demographics, remembers former Gov. Jeb Bush, who ran her 1989 campaign.. He said the animosity culminated in a bomb threat on election night at the airport Hilton where Ros-Lehtinen was hosting her victory party.
“They said we need to get down and do the victory speech as quickly as possible,” Bush remembered. “It was a tense race, very divisive. There was a lot of coverage nationally because it was so historic in many ways. Miami hadn’t quite settled on being a community that was totally comfortable in its diversity.”
Bush said the bomb scare serves as a contrast to the city’s cultural and political views today, and how Ros-Lehtinen carried herself and her office. “She’s just a phenomenal public servant. We’re in a different era now where a lot of politics is about peoples' ambitions and themselves rather than having a servants’ heart.”
Over the next 30 years, Ros-Lehtinen crafted a relationship for being responsive to voters, taking smiling pictures in the days before selfies were a thing, and serving cuban coffee in her office to visitors. She established herself as a foreign policy hawk and Cuba hard-liner, doggedly defending the trade embargo that strangled the late-Fidel Castro’s communist government even after the Obama administration moved to thaw relations with Castro’s brother, Raul.
She also chaired the House International Committee, now the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
In recent years, even while remaining firmly conservative on certain issues, Ros-Lehtinen moved closer to the center and even to the left on issues like climate change and LGBTQ rights. One of her four children, Rodrigo, is transgender, a relationship that has helped turn her into a fierce advocate for a vulnerable, marginalized community.
On Sunday, as news of her retirement spread, colleagues in both parties shared their thanks for her service even as the parties themselves began to plan how to succeed her. Some may disagree with her politics, but all the statements shared a common thread: gratitude for a remarkable career person and career.
“People know Ileana. People respect Ileana. Above all, people love Ileana,” said Superintendent Carvalho. “Unless you’re the Castros.”
Miami Herald staff writers Kristen Clark and Patricia Mazzei contributed to this article.