Politics

How Ros-Lehtinen found a way to connect with Hispanics, Jews and everyone else

Miami Herald Archives

Congresswowman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen celebrates at JJ's American Diner in Coral Gables with her supporters after defeating opponent Annette Taddeo in 2008.
Congresswowman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen celebrates at JJ's American Diner in Coral Gables with her supporters after defeating opponent Annette Taddeo in 2008. El Nuevo Herald File

From the Herald archives: This is a profile of U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen published on Oct. 13, 2008, before the election that year.

To understand why Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is favored to keep her congressional seat even in a difficult election season for Republicans, watch her work a room full of voters.

On a recent trip to a local Jewish nursing home, Ros-Lehtinen reiterated her commitment to legislation benefiting Holocaust survivors and then, heading out the door, grabbed a cheese blintz for the road.

No plate needed, she told several supporters as she wrapped her snack in a napkin and announced plans to "eat it like a taco."

Then she stopped. "That's not culturally insensitive, is it?" a smiling Ros-Lehtinen asked. "To eat it like a taco?"

READ MORE: Ros-Lehtinen to retire from Congress

The moment was light but intimate, a quick demonstration of Ros-Lehtinen's knack for establishing a personal connection with constituents, Jewish or Hispanic, young or old.

Ros-Lehtinen, a Pinecrest Republican, has built a double-digit lead in polls over her Democratic opponent, businesswoman Annette Taddeo. While fellow Republicans in South Florida are locked in tough battles to keep their seats, Ros-Lehtinen is pulling ahead.

A Florida International University Metropolitan Center/Univisión poll released last week gave Ros-Lehtinen a lead of 52 percent to 27 percent over Taddeo, with 21 percent undecided. Other polls have also shown Ros-Lehtinen well in front.

Pollster Fernand Amandi, whose firm is doing congressional polling on behalf of Democrats this year, acknowledged Ros-Lehtinen's appeal as "a very touchy-feely congresswoman" -- even as he cautioned against calling her unbeatable.

Factors such as the sour economy, demographic changes in the district, and a motivated Democratic base could lead to an election-day surprise, Amandi said.

"She's done a lot of work going after the different constituent groups, the different ethnic groups, " said Amandi, an executive vice president at Bendixen and Associates.

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Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, speaks during a debate in 2008. Pedro Portal El Nuevo Herald File

Last week at Coral Gables High School, after the congresswoman spoke with teenagers considering a military career, she posed for the umpteenth photo with a student. A congressional aide held the teenager's purse.

"Danny!" Ros-Lehtinen joked to the aide, without missing a beat. "Get the cash and credit cards while I distract her!"

PROBLEM-SOLVING

Ros-Lehtinen has made constituent problem-solving a priority. Republican state Rep. Rene Garcia, a former Ros-Lehtinen intern, says he modeled his constituent-services efforts after those of his old boss -- even down to the forms his staff uses to jot all the information down.

"No problem was too small for her office, " Garcia said. If a senior citizen needed help with translating a letter, "that was important, you had to do that."

Ros-Lehtinen's campaign account has reached nearly $1.3 million, according to the most recent campaign reports. Major donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, include more than $10,000 each from powerhouse law firms Akerman, Senterfitt & Eidson and Greenberg Traurig, from Westchester General Hospital and from Dp Real Estate Holdings -- a company owned by former Miami-Dade School Board member Demetrio Perez Jr., who was removed from office in 2001 after a 21-count federal rent-fraud indictment.

Ros-Lehtinen was born in Havana, came to Miami at age 8, and was raised in the neighborhoods of Little Havana and Westchester. She graduated from Southwest Senior High School, and focused her college studies on the field of education -- earning bachelor's and master's degrees from Florida International University and a doctorate from the University of Miami.

After a start as a teacher's assistant for Miami-Dade County schools, Ros-Lehtinen opened the private Eastern Academy in Hialeah in 1978 -- working as both a teacher and principal for eight years. Hearing about the economic struggles of her students' parents, Ros-Lehtinen says, led her to seek public office.

Ileana the educator became Ileana the politician in 1982, when she was elected to the Florida House of Representatives. She married another Tallahassee politician, then-state Rep. Dexter Lehtinen, after the 1984 legislative session. Lehtinen, a Democrat at the time, soon after switched his party affiliation to Republican.

The 1985 announcement of Ros-Lehtinen's pregnancy prompted a Miami Herald headline: "Here's historic first: a baby in the House."

Not everyone was enamored of the newlywed lawmakers. When Ros-Lehtinen and her husband won separate state Senate seats, political opponents called the couple's combined campaign an unfair advantage. Dexter Lehtinen later became a U.S. attorney and then a private-practice attorney with clients that include the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida.

Ros-Lehtinen had her eye on a congressional seat. Her 1989 election marked the first time a Hispanic woman or a Cuban American had risen to such a post.

FOCUS ON CUBA

She began to exert influence on U.S. policy toward Cuba. In the Legislature, she had solidified a reputation as an anti-communist hard-liner, pushing Florida House resolutions bashing Fidel Castro and speaking out nationally against thawing U.S.-Cuba relations.

Today, Ros-Lehtinen serves as the ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and has worked to become an expert on countries across the globe -- not just her native Cuba.

On Cuba, Ros-Lehtinen supports the continuation of strict travel restrictions, although some in the Cuban-American community have criticized them for keeping families apart. Ros-Lehtinen's opponent, Taddeo, has said the travel restrictions should be eased. Both support the continuation of the trade embargo.

Although closely identified with Cuba policy, Ros-Lehtinen says her record in Congress is about much more than that -- including the securing of federal funds for dredging the Miami River and restoring the sands of Miami Beach.

Her priorities, if reelected, would include resuscitating the economy, pushing for a national catastrophe fund, and improving college financial-aid programs, she said.

Her voting record on domestic issues reflects the "moderate Republican" title bestowed on her by gov track.us, a congressional-tracking website.

Ros-Lehtinen has bucked her own party with her pro-immigrant stance, her support of raising the minimum wage, and her commitment to protecting the equal rights of gays and lesbians.

"She's very, very supportive and stands with us, " said Rachel Balick of Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based gay-advocacy group.

There are other issues on which Ros-Lehtinen's positions more closely follow those of her party.

She has voted against stem-cell research, and she voted for the federal government's intervention in the Terri Schiavo case -- a national right-to-die debate centering on a brain-damaged Pinellas Park woman.

In 2002, Ros-Lehtinen joined most other House Republicans in authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq.

Asked if the decision to enter Iraq was a mistake -- an opinion that a majority of Americans hold, according to polls -- she replied: "We can look back and rewrite history. I prefer to look forward."

Ros-Lehtinen offered a similar "look forward" response when asked to assess the Bush administration's overall performance.

"The new administration will be far different than the present one, whether it's Republican or Democratic, " she said. "And I'm optimistic that people will vote for me and send me back to D.C. because of my record of service."

ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN

Born: July 15, 1952, Havana, Cuba.

Education: Florida Inter- national University; doctorate in education, Uni versity of Miami.

Professional: Former teacher; founder of Eastern Academy, a private elementary school in Hialeah.

Political: U.S. House of Representatives, 1989- resent; Florida Senate, 1987-89; Florida House, 1983-86.

Personal: Lives in Pine- crest with husband, former Miami U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen. They have two grown daughters.

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