Politics

The day Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was elected to Congress

Congresswoman Ileana Ros Lehtinen in 2005, announcing federal funds for a new tunnel for PortMiami.
Congresswoman Ileana Ros Lehtinen in 2005, announcing federal funds for a new tunnel for PortMiami. El Nuevo Herald File

From the Miami Herald archives: This is the report published Aug. 30, 1989, after Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami-Dade County became the first Cuban-American in Congress.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, in the crowning political achievement of Miami's exile community, passed a triple milestone Tuesday by becoming the first Cuban American, first Republican and first woman in Congress from Dade County.

Ros-Lehtinen, 37, a conservative party loyalist who waged a well-choreographed campaign to overcome the district's Democratic majority, rode a Hispanic juggernaut to victory over Democrat Gerald F. Richman in an ethnically charged duel to succeed the late Claude Pepper.

READ MORE: Ros-Lehtinen to retire from Congress

Richman piled up huge margins among blacks and Anglos, but was swamped by a giant, unified Hispanic electorate determined to send one of their own to Congress. All three major ethnic blocs split their votes by at least 9-1, black and Anglos for Richman and Hispanics for Ros-Lehtinen.

Though Ros-Lehtinen downplayed her Havana roots throughout the 10-week campaign, exiles rejoiced at sending the first Cuban American to the nation's highest legislative body. Ros-Lehtinen, an outspoken anti-Communist who was the first Cuban woman in both chambers of the Florida Legislature, becomes the country's premier voice for an estimated one million Cubans.

Cuban pride echoed across the Miami Airport Hilton ballroom where 1,000 Ros-Lehtinen backers gathered in victory Tuesday night. While they waited for Ros-Lehtinen to appear, salsa queen Celia Cruz led the crowd in a Spanish-language chant:

"Now you see it, how the people have spoken. And everyone has chosen Ileana Ros."

As she left the stage, Cruz shouted triumphantly into the microphone: "The Cubans won!"

And in a fitting irony to the race, which led many Cubans to passionately defend their role as Americans, Cruz's chant was immediately followed by Lee Greenwood's hit single God Bless the U.S.A.

Its refrain: "I'm proud to be an American."

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Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Miami Herald File/2001

An overjoyed Ros-Lehtinen took the stage at 11:50 p.m., flanked by her husband, her parents and top Republican officials, and pledged to "complete the mission established by Claude Pepper where the elderly are respected." She then switched into Spanish -- "for our brothers listening in Cuba so they can see what a democracy is like."

Richman, surrounded by 600 supporters at the Clarion Castle hotel in Miami Beach, said his campaign team had "performed a minor miracle in 10 weeks to come from an asterisk in the polls to doing as well as we have."

He bemoaned the ethnic cleavage that was his downfall Tuesday, at one point accusing Spanish-language radio station WQBA-AM of inciting Cuban voters by announcing that the Fidel Castro regime had endorsed Richman.

"Unfortunately, we did not have as large a turnout as some segments of the community, as the Hispanics, " said Richman, 48, a former president of the Florida Bar who never before ran for public office. "The lesson to be learned by this is we have to get everyone in this community -- the blacks, the so-called Anglos, everyone -- to get out and exercise their vote. Because if that would have happened, we would have won tonight."

Richman, who spent weeks portraying Ros-Lehtinen as a right-wing extremist, said her constituents "aren't going to have someone who's going to carry on Claude Pepper's legacy." He urged her to "modify her views and try to follow in the footsteps of Claude Pepper."

Both Richman and Ros-Lehtinen committed themselves to healing the ethnic wounds left by the campaign's cutting rhetoric.

"I and she will unify the community, " Richman said.

For the first time since its creation in 1962, the 18th District will do without Congressman Pepper. It's a revolutionary idea after 27 years of the Pepper magic -- one man's almost mystical knack for bridging the district's ethnic and ideological gulfs even as they grew wider.

Pepper — gregarious, populist and anti-Communist — was the glue that bonded disparate ethnic blocs into winning majorities election after election. His closest brush with defeat came in 1984, when Pepper fell just shy of 60 percent of the vote against Cuban American real estate broker Ricardo Nunez.

But the coalition came unstuck with Pepper's death on May 30. In the stampede to succeed him, the Pepper mantle was trampled, laying bare the ethnic tensions that had simmered for years in Miami Beach, Liberty City and Little Havana.

Claude Pepper had merely postponed, not precluded, a bruising power struggle between the Democratic, elderly Jewish vote in Miami Beach — long the district's dominant force — and the fast-growing Cuban American Republican vote across the bay.

"This wasn't a Democratic seat. It was Claude Pepper's seat, " said Howard Schloss, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

For 10 weeks, ethnic fear dominated the most compressed and passionate congressional race in South Florida history. It overshadowed party loyalty. It overwhelmed the issues. It polarized voters as Richman, the Jewish lawyer from Miami Beach, confronted Cuban American opponents for both the Democratic nomination and, afterward, the congressional seat itself.

One thing was never in doubt: The final battle would pit a Democrat, whether Richman or someone else, against a Cuban American. Foreign-born Hispanics accounted for a daunting 65 percent of the district's Republicans, enough to guarantee Ros- Lehtinen the party's nomination.

The Democratic picture was fuzzier. Early polls showed a Hispanic Democrat stood the best chance of stopping Ros- Lehtinen, but the worst chance of first surviving the party's own primary.

Democratic voters seemed destined to choose a non-Latin opponent for Ros-Lehtinen -- an explosive mixture in the district's ethnic cauldron.

The first salvo was fired in early June. Republican National Chairman Lee Atwater, speaking to a gathering of wealthy Cuban American businessmen in Washington, said it was time for the Republican Party to send a Cuban American to Congress.

His remark set off a firestorm in Miami, where many understood Atwater to suggest that the seat "belonged" to a Cuban American. State Sen. Jack Gordon, then the front-running Democrat, dropped out of the race with a fiery denunciation of Atwater's "sleaze" politics.

Ros-Lehtinen, comfortably ahead of her three Republican rivals but eager not to alienate Anglo voters, disavowed Atwater's remark. But Richman saw an opening, a chance to break out of the Democratic pack led by Cuban American Rosario Kennedy.

He fashioned a slogan that, despite its innocent wording, struck a raw nerve. "This, " he proclaimed, "is an American seat."

By sheer repetition, the slogan inflamed ethnic passions and soon eclipsed every other campaign issue. Civic leaders pleaded with Richman to drop it, saying it sounded like a thinly disguised call to "stop the Cubans." Richman adamantly refused, defending the slogan as a call to unity made necessary by Atwater's divisive talk.

There was another reason: The slogan was working. Polls showed Richman, a political unknown until then, leapfrogging over the other six Democratic candidates. Suddenly, Jack Gordon's withdrawal speech weeks earlier seemed prophetic:

"I think the only way that this election could be won by a Democrat, or will be won by a Democrat, is by virtue of raising ethnic divisiveness by saying 'Stop the Cubans' in one fashion or another, " Gordon had said.

Overnight, the intense, introverted Richman found himself on trial for bigotry. The party establishment, from labor unions to party bosses, redoubled its efforts for Kennedy. Richman fought back by investing a small fortune of his own money —$320,000 at last count —to saturate the airwaves with his name, face and slogan.

The gamble paid off richly: Richman ran a stunning first in the Aug. 1 primary, then finished Kennedy off in a runoff two weeks later. When he refused to apologize for the slogan, Kennedy refused to endorse him against Ros-Lehtinen.

Not surprisingly, the Democratic runoff vote split cleanly along ethnic lines. Richman took 80 percent of the mostly Jewish vote in Miami Beach, while Kennedy piled up equal margins among Hispanic Democrats.

It was a sign of things to come.

Ros-Lehtinen, who crushed her three Republican rivals on Aug. 1, seized the ethnic issue to bash Richman. No sooner had he won the Democratic nomination than Ros-Lehtinen canceled all debates, saying she wouldn't dignify his "racist" campaign by appearing on the same stage with him.

Privately, Ros-Lehtinen aides conceded she had the most to lose in a debate over her seven-year record -- some of it controversial -- in the Legislature. Richman could attack her record without having to defend one of his own.

Instead, Ros-Lehtinen waged a guerrilla campaign, pouncing on the enemy at the right time, then quickly retreating to the safety of her handlers. She basked in fund-raising visits by Vice President Dan Quayle and President Bush. She filled voters' mailboxes with brochures and their television screens with commercials.

And from a comfortable distance, she accused Richman of supporting a congressional pay raise and opposing the death penalty for drug "kingpins, " both of which Richman called distortions of his views. Richman, in turn, struggled to exploit the district's pro-choice and pro-gun control leanings by hammering Ros-Lehtinen's controversial votes on both issues.

But with his target nowhere in sight, his words fell flat.

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