U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the dean of the Florida legislative delegation and the first Cuban American elected to Congress, is retiring at the end of her term next year, saying it’s time to move on after more than 35 years in elected office.
“It's been such a delight and a high honor to serve our community for so many years and help constituents every day of the week,” the Miami Republican told the Miami Herald in an exclusive telephone interview Sunday. “We just said, ‘It's time to take a new step.’ ”
Her unexpected retirement marks the end of a storied career in which Ros-Lehtinen repeatedly broke political ground as a Cuban-American woman -- and gives Democrats an opportunity to pick up a South Florida congressional seat in 2018.
Ros-Lehtinen, 64, was elected last November to Florida’s redrawn 27th district, a stretch of Southeast Miami-Dade County that leans so Democratic that Hillary Clinton won it over Donald Trump by 20 percentage points. It was Clinton's biggest margin of any Republican-held seat in the country.
Ros-Lehtinen defeated Democratic challenger Scott Fuhrman, a first-time candidate, by 10 points. It was her closest reelection race in years and forced her to deplete her $3.4 million campaign account, but she said Sunday she wasn't worried about 2018.
“There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that I would not only win in this election, but I would win by a greater percentage,” Ros-Lehtinen said, adding that she would have been able to raise at least $2.5 million and win in a midterm election without a Democratic presidential candidate leading the ballot.
But she said the prospect of another two or four or more years in Congress just didn’t appeal to her anymore.
“There was no epiphany. There was no moment, nothing that has happened that I've said, “I've got to move on,’” Ros-Lehtinen said. “It was just a realization that I could keep getting elected — but it's not about getting elected.”
She also said she’s not leaving Congress because of her differences with President Trump or with House GOP leadership, though Ros-Lehtinen has been one of the most vocal moderate Republican critics of the White House and the conservative House Freedom Caucus. Ros-Lehtinen, who said she didn’t vote for Trump last year, has disagreed with the president on deportations, transgender rights and budget cuts, and with House Republicans on healthcare.
“I've served under all kinds of different dynamics in all these years that I've been in office here,” said Ros-Lehtinen, who was first elected to Congress in 1989 after seven years in the Florida Legislature. “Though I don't agree with many, if not most, positions of President Trump.”
Having Republicans control the White House, House and Senate “gives me an opportunity to stand out more and have people realize that I'm a moderate,” she said. “I'm not one of those name-callers that think the Democrats don’t have a single good idea. Too many people think that way, and I think that's to the detriment to civility and of good government.”
But, she insisted, “it's not been part of the calculation of retiring.”
“I would be talking to you even if Hillary Clinton were president,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
Her husband and longtime campaign chairman, former Miami U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen, said the couple wanted to avoid the type of “pro-forma statement” that retiring politicians release “saying they want to spend more time with their family.”
“And usually by folks who can't stand their family!” she joked.
“But deep down I think that's probably the biggest reason” for his wife’s retirement, Lehtinen conceded. The couple has four grandchildren whom Ros-Lehtinen frequently posts about on Twitter.
Just four weeks ago, Lehtinen had said his wife was looking forward to a “vigorous campaign” next year.
Even before her announced retirement, national Democrats had already been recruiting contenders for next year to take on Ros-Lehtinen, a formidable opponent so well known that most people simply call her Ileana -- or Ily. Three Democrats -- Fuhrman, Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and Michael Hepburn -- have declared their candidacies, but others are likely to become interested now that they won’t be taking on a popular incumbent.
Likewise, Republicans who wouldn't have dreamed of ever challenging the beloved Ros-Lehtinen in a primary will now get to run — albeit for a tough seat for the GOP to hold.
“It'll be a good, hard-fought fight, because it’s an even-keeled district,” Ros-Lehtinen said, adding that she has “no idea who will run.”
Some Republicans acknowledge that, given Hillary Clinton's double-digit win over Trump in the district, a Democrat would be in a strong position to fill that seat.
"If Clinton carried that district with her liabilities, her baggage, in what was basically a Trump wave in Florida, then after Trump's performance in office, you would think a credible Democratic candidate would be able to do very well," said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime GOP operative and lobbyist in Florida, and a frequent Trump critic.
Ros-Lehtinen, who’s been in Congress longer than any other Florida lawmaker, was the first Hispanic woman and first Cuban American ever elected to Congress. She succeeded the late Miami Democratic political icon Claude Pepper. Her campaign manager? Jeb Bush. Marco Rubio was once her intern.
Before that, Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-born teacher who holds a doctorate in education, had been the first Hispanic woman elected to the Florida House and then the Florida Senate. Her biggest accomplishment, according to her husband, was getting Florida’s prepaid college-tuition program passed.
In Congress, Ros-Lehtinen staked her ground as a foreign-policy hawk, becoming the first Hispanic woman to chair the House International Committee, now the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. She currently chairs the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, and sits on the intelligence committee. The late Fidel Castro nicknamed her “la loba feroz” or “the big bad she-wolf.”
For years, Ros-Lehtinen represented the Florida Keys, including gay-friendly Key West, and advocated for LGBTQ rights -- far ahead of much of the GOP. Eventually, her transgender son, Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, made his way into the public spotlight; last year, he and his parents recorded a bilingual public-service TV campaign to urge Hispanics to support transgender youth.
In her remaining 20 months in Congress, Ros-Lehtinen said she will keep pushing for one of her long-running goals: for Germany to offer restitution to Holocaust victims.
“And I will continue to stand up to tyrants and dictators all over the world,” she said. “I take that as a badge of honor, when they blast me and don't let me in their countries.”
But her favorite congressional memory will be meeting constituents -- from Westchester, Key Biscayne, Coral Gables, Pinecrest -- whom her office has helped in some way, Ros-Lehtinen said.
“Even though I could list many legislative accomplishments, I don't think that those are as long-lasting and important as the impact that I hope that I have had on individuals in my district fighting deportation or getting their residency or their citizenship or into public housing,” she said. “I just haven't had a bad day.”
McClatchy correspondent Katie Glueck contributed to this report.