The congressional office with one of the best views of the Capitol Dome awakens from a mid-afternoon lull as the door swings open and the boss emerges with a loud, “Hello, everybody!”
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is in, and the cafecito is flowing.
The outgoing Miami Republican, one of the few remaining moderates in a Congress dominated by uncompromising politicians of both stripes, is cheerful and full of energy as she navigates her final year in Washington. Ros-Lehtinen freely distributes hip-bumps, high-fives and hugs to everyone, and typically dour-faced lawmakers light up whenever they encounter her on Capitol Hill.
Ros-Lehtinen, a 65-year-old Cuban American who was a trailblazing Latina in Tallahassee and Washington, said she’s not leaving office because she’s scared that her overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning district will turn against her in 2018, or because she’s fed up with the hyper-partisan rhetoric of the Trump era.
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It’s just been 28 years, and she and husband Dexter Lehtinen are ready for something different.
“Dexter and I, one morning we just woke up and we just looked at each other, maybe we had read an article in the Herald, I don’t know, and we just said, ‘What do you think?’” Ros-Lehtinen said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I think we’re ready, I think we’re ready for a new adventure.’ ”
Ros-Lehtinen doesn’t have an immediate plan for the future. She may get back into teaching, her profession before she first ran for the Florida Legislature 35 years ago. Or she may work in an advocacy role that allows her to split time between Miami and Washington, noting that the two-hour flight is a breeze.
A year ago, Ros-Lehtinen faced her closest challenge in years. She won by 10 percentage points over businessman Scott Fuhrman after spending $3.4 million in campaign cash, even though Hillary Clinton won her district by more than 19 percentage points. But six months later, Ros-Lehtinen announced that she was retiring from Congress, a decision that sent shockwaves through the Miami political community.
“Ileana has been a champion for her time. I don’t look at it as a loss but a passing of the torch,” said Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell, one of the Democrats seeking to replace her in Congress.
Other Republican lawmakers who recently announced their retirement, like senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, have fiercely criticized Trump and his associates for dragging American politics into a tweet-filled gutter. But Ros-Lehtinen, a veteran of many Miami-style political campaigns where insults are hurled with regularity in two languages, said politics has always been a rough game.
“I think Jeff Flake and others have been talking about how frustrated they feel in a polarized environment,” Ros-Lehtinen said minutes after Flake announced his retirement in a dramatic Senate floor speech. “This has always been a polarizing place. It’s always been a source of frustration if that’s how you look at it. I chose long ago I was going to be a Hubert Humphrey-style happy warrior.”
But Ros-Lehtinen is also fiercely anti-Trump, frequently decrying the president as a “bully” who began his campaign by insulting Mexican immigrants and Sen. John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war, a position she says he has carried on into the White House.
“I just don’t react well to people who take to bullying on Twitter,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “I can’t comprehend why you would be president and do that. … It’s just interesting to me that people who were with him during the campaign … are now seeing that he’s kind of a bully.”
Ros-Lehtinen’s anti-Trump statements and tweets — she was one of the first politicians to call for Steve Bannon’s ouster and voted against the House’s Obamacare repeal bill — have garnered viral love from left-leaning websites and social media channels.
But she isn’t leaving the Republican Party. Ros-Lehtinen is all-in for Gov. Rick Scott in his likely bid against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018 and said she will endorse whoever wins the Republican primary in the race to replace her.
“The Rick Scott that you see now, I think he’s evolving, he’s learning and adapting,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “He has a lot of strengths and he has come to understand issues far better now than he used to. For example, on the Dreamers, he was a guy who was not helping us on immigration and he’s come around.”
Ros-Lehtinen’s district has changed a lot during her time in Congress, as Miami-Dade County’s population has exploded in the past 30 years. During her maiden term in office, she represented areas of coastal Miami-Dade and Liberty City that are now a part of U.S. Reps. Frederica Wilson’s and Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s heavily Democratic districts.
“I’ve represented just about every inch of Miami-Dade County throughout my years,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “When I was first elected in 1989, I had a district that included a great diversity of folks from South Florida. Not just Little Havana, which I still have, but Little Haiti, Liberty City, Overtown … way more challenging politically than the one I have now. My very first race, that was the toughest race ever and I think I would have easily won this go-round. I would have squished them like a bug.”
Though Ros-Lehtinen has just over a year left until retirement, she has hopes that Congress or the Trump administration will find a solution for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, saying that there’s an “80 percent chance that we will help the Dreamers.”
“We will either do it legislatively or President Trump has said, ‘I will take care of it,’ ” Ros-Lehtinen said. “We’re going to hold his feet to the fire.”
But she doesn’t think much of Trump’s capacity for legislation, particularly in foreign affairs.
“I could ask him maybe 10 questions on the Iranian nuclear deal, I don’t know that he would answer them,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “I’m not saying that I’m the smartest person and he’s a dummy, he’s just genuinely not interested in legislation. I get nervous when I see him doing a freewheeling press conference.”
One important issue in her low-lying, coastal district is still largely unresolved. How does Congress combat sea-level rise as king tides flood portions of Miami Beach regularly?
“If we had the ability to stop time, go back in time, we would not have built so close to the shore. That was such a mistake,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “And with sea-level rise, look what it’s doing to life and property. I appreciate the efforts of Mayor Phil Levine of Miami Beach … who is doing a great job. My golly, he’s trying.”
She said Miami Republicans such as Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who co-chairs an evenly divided group of lawmakers from both parties who are concerned about climate change, are well-positioned to lead national efforts on the issue that retain the support of Republicans and Democrats.
“It used to be thought of that Hispanics did not care about climate change, but look, it’s Carlos Curbelo, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and [outgoing Miami Mayor Tomás] Tomasito Regalado, I mean, we’re pretty Hispanic,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “I think we’re showing the world that those stereotypes are no longer valid.”
But moderate Republicans like Curbelo, Ros-Lehtinen and Regalado are facing a party that has veered toward policy ideas like building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and drastically cutting the number of green cards available to immigrants. The two South Florida Republicans that ran national campaigns for president, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, were attacked for their “pro-amnesty” position toward immigrants, and defeated by the tough-talking Trump.
“I am not concerned that our Republican Party will not have room for folks like me, like Curbelo, like Jeb Bush, because I believe the Trump presidency is just going to be a blip,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
“One of the best decisions I made was not endorsing Trump,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Every day, I’m feeling so much better about it. Oh my gosh, I wake up with a smile on my face.”