Miami-Dade County

Ros-Lehtinen: Race to replace her in Congress will be ‘a great food fight’

Following her sudden announcement that she’ll retire rather than seek reelection in 2018, Miami Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said Monday that she has no specific plans for the future — outside of enjoying the scrum to come over her open seat.

“It’s going to be a great food fight,” Ros-Lehtinen told a crowd of reporters wedged into her Westchester district office. “I can’t wait to watch from the sidelines.”

In Congress now for nearly 30 years, the Republican lawmaker surprised supporters, detractors and party leaders alike Sunday when she explained her plans to serve out her current term and then call it quits. At 64, the first Cuban American elected to Congress remains a champion of Miami’s Cuban exile community, the dean of the Florida delegation, and an increasingly rare centrist in a hyper-partisan climate.

But despite her continuing popularity, she says it’s time to do something else. And so, flanked by her husband, Dexter Lehtinen, and her brother she mused Monday about a “great life,” teased her staff, cheekily called on reporters by name and kept her eyes dry, expect when talking about her father. She said the choice to leave is hers, perhaps based on no reason other than a desire to remain closer to family, or to try something new.

“It’s a great job. But there comes a time when you say even though this is a wonderful life and even though I get to do what I love to do, there are so many other wonderful things,” she said. “There are lots of things I can do. I’ve got my doctorate in education. Who knows? I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

The decision, she said, has nothing to do with her differences with President Donald Trump (she thanked God Monday that a new federal budget deal doesn’t include “The Wall”). Nor does it have to do with the tenor of D.C. politics or the leftward shift of her district.

“It would be a great narrative to say people aren’t civil with each other and there’s a lot of infighting. But I’ve been there so many years I don’t recall a time there hasn’t been infighting and a lack of civility,” she said. “I know people will say the district has changed. Hooo! You should have seen my district when I first got elected. It was rough. I’ve had very few easy rides.”

Over the next two years, as Ros-Lehtinen winds down her time in Congress, her seat is likely to become another front in the power struggle between the political parties. With District 27 favoring Hillary Clinton by 21 points over Trump in the November election, Democrats are expected to go hard after the seat, and Republicans will cling to it just as they fight to keep control of the House of Representatives.

Some question whether a Republican can even win the seat. But Ros-Lehtinen said party leaders didn’t try to convince her to stay, although she said she didn’t give them much choice by calling them after the Miami Herald broke the news of her retirement. She said her party can hold onto the seat as long as it has the right candidate.

“I have always won with ticket-splitters: people who are registered Democrats but are willing to vote for me,” she said. “Either party can win. And more districts should be that way.”

Until then, Ros-Lehtinen said she has more work to do. During the press conference, she called forward Holocaust survivor David Mermelstein and gave him a hug. She said she’s committed to making sure the German government makes good on a pledge to financially support Holocaust survivors so that they live in comfort — a pledge she says remains unfulfilled.

“It’s still business as usual,” she said.

Herald staff writers Patricia Mazzei and Martin Vassolo contributed to this report.

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