Miami’s ‘big bad she-wolf’ finishes a 29-year run in Congress

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, husband urge parents to support transgender children

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, her husband, Dexter Lehtinen, and their transgender son, Rodrigo, launch a "Family is Everything" campaign with LGBT-rights group SAVE on Monday, May 16, 2016, at Miami Dade College.
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U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, her husband, Dexter Lehtinen, and their transgender son, Rodrigo, launch a "Family is Everything" campaign with LGBT-rights group SAVE on Monday, May 16, 2016, at Miami Dade College.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wasn’t sure what to do.

The first Latina in Congress was scheduled to give a speech in front of a prominent Washington think tank in less than 10 hours, and one sentence was tripping her up. She was unsure whether or not she should call for Venezuela to be listed as a state sponsor of terror, and she called a former staffer to get his opinion.

But first, she had to wait for cheering patrons in a Washington sports bar to calm down from watching Thursday Night Football.

As she ate wings without sauce and sipped a double rum and Diet Coke at the end of a 17-hour workday that began at 4:30 a.m., Ros-Lehtinen listened to the thoughts of the former staffer, who argued that it was fine to include it. Another staffer pointed out that she already tweeted about listing Venezuela alongside North Korea and Syria as a state sponsor of terror, and the response from Venezuelans was positive.

“The tweets have spoken,” Ros-Lehtinen said, as she scribbled with her pen to update the speech last week.

As Miami’s longest-tenured congresswoman finishes out her final weeks in office, there’s still plenty of work to do. Her bill that would limit U.S. loans to the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega until he carries out democratic reforms passed the U.S. Senate, though it still needs final passage in the House of Representatives and President Donald Trump’s signature. Another bill named in her honor would authorize defense and security spending assistance for Israel, and it has an uncertain fate in the final weeks of this year’s Congress.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is retiring from Congress, to be replaced by Donna Shalala.

Though Ros-Lehtinen is leaving office, her anti-communist worldview, inspired by a childhood in Cuba, lives on through dozens of former staffers and associates who occupy positions of power in government, notably Sen. Marco Rubio, a former intern. The legacy of her outsized influence on foreign policy and Latin American affairs will continue long after she leaves elected office.

But the congresswoman whom Fidel Castro once called a “big bad she-wolf” has been booted from her office, which has a primo view of the Capitol Dome, so another member can move in during her final weeks in Congress. She’s forced to lobby for legislation, and push for measures like a national museum for Latinos, out of a windowless one-room office without a printer, where she shares space with an old mutt named Mya.

“Mya is like me. We both came in slim but we’ve both put on a little weight,” Ros-Lehtinen said, as the dog emerged from the open office door when he heard the boss’s voice from a hundred feet down a massive hallway in the Rayburn House Office Building.

The Miami Herald recently spent a day with Ros-Lehtinen, the first Cuban-American elected to Congress, as she winds down a lawmaking career that began 36 years ago in the Florida Legislature. With the exception of a few private conversations with fellow lawmakers who did not know a reporter was listening and a closed-door lunch, the entire day was on the record. It provides a glimpse into how one of the most affable people in Washington serves her constituents, tells certain lobbyists to shove it, and keeps promoting a set of issues that has made her the defining Republican voice in policy areas mostly dominated by liberals.

Back of the Line

For all the tributes, banquets and awards honoring Ros-Lehtinen’s 29-year career in Washington — and there have been many over the past 18 months — on the floor of the House of Representatives rules matter more than clout.

A bad patch of traffic from the airport made Ros-Lehtinen late for her usual morning speech in a largely empty chamber. Instead of getting to speak promptly at 10 a.m., she needed to wait nearly an hour for every other lawmaker to speak. While other lawmakers talked about topics ranging from General Motors’ decision to shutter a large auto manufacturing plant to the positive attributes of food on a stick, she scrolled through her iPad.

The morning-hour speech is part of Ros-Lehtinen’s routine. Last year she spoke 81 times on all sorts of topics, the fourth most out of the 435-member House. The topic of this morning’s speech was promoting LGBT rights, a familiar message from the first Republican in Congress to support gay marriage.

“Throughout my tenure in Congress I have been so proud to work and promote LGBT equality here and around the world,” Ros-Lehtinen said after lowering the podium so she could see over it. “In 1989, our country was in a very different place than it is today in how we understand people who are LGBT, and the rights and respect that we are due. Although much progress still needs to be made, it is true that we are morphing in the right direction.”

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, urges parents to support transgender children as she, her husband, Dexter Lehtinen, and son Rodrigo, launch the "Family is Everything" campaign with LGBT-rights group SAVE on Monday, May 16, 2016, at Miami Dade Coll

By the time Ros-Lehtinen begins speaking, the House floor is empty except for a dozen tourists sitting in the upper gallery.

Ros-Lehtinen is the kind of politician who compliments you on your new haircut the day after you actually get a new haircut. Every walk around the Capitol takes about twice as long as it should because every single person receives a hello or a boisterous buenos dias from the retiring congresswoman. Dogs are a particular source of distraction.

As she chatted with the driver of the underground trolley that links the Capitol to the House office buildings, one of her staffers inadvertently climbed into a section reserved for lawmakers only.

“He doesn’t follow the rules, he’s Nicaraguan,” Ros-Lehtinen joked.

About an hour after her LGBT speech, Ros-Lehtinen returns to the House floor to give a speech in honor of a local lawyer. This time, Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are in attendance, as Ryan was due to give his farewell speech minutes later. Immediately after walking off the floor, Ros-Lehtinen called Miami attorney Ira Leesfield to thank him and let him know she had just talked about him in front of the two party leaders.

“Thank you, thank you, Congresswoman,” Leesfield says over speakerphone.

Talking positively about her constituents is “how people can vote for me even though they can’t stand my votes,” Ros-Lehtinen said, while mentioning that she and her husband Dexter never cook, and going out to eat for every meal gives them the chance to talk to more people.

Ros-Lehtinen then heads to a private monthly lunch for Florida Republicans, and Rep. Ted Yoho is serving barbecue. Anyone who brings pizza is shamed, and naturally Ros-Lehtinen brings Cuban food when her turn comes around.

Being a Conservative

Though the congresswoman garnered national attention for the past two and a half years for disavowing Donald Trump during the 2016 Republican primary — and sticking to her position after he gained power — she’s still a small-government Republican with an aversion to the T-word, as in taxes.

In the middle of a series of meetings, two lobbyists from the Citizens Climate Lobby visit to pitch Ros-Lehtinen on a bill that would tax carbon emissions and return the money raised by the tax to everyone in the form of a dividend. As Mya shuffled under the table looking for some snacks, the lobbyists argued that Ros-Lehtinen’s signature on a bill drafted by Florida Democrats Ted Deutch and Charlie Crist along with Florida Republican Francis Rooney would carry weight in the next session of Congress as the group looks to pass a tax on pollution that could potentially garner some Republican support.

Ros-Lehtinen praised their work, but frowned when the word “tax” came up.

“No one likes new taxes,” Ros-Lehtinen said, to which the lobbyists replied that the tax on polluters would benefit everyone in the form of a dividend.

“I just had the lobbyist from Miami-Dade County in here this morning, and we talked about how the county promised that a tax would pay for rail, then it turned out to be a sleight-of-hand,” she said.

She argued that policymakers and lawmakers promise that a new tax will be used for one purpose, then years later the money raised will go to something else, like a rapid-transit bus line instead of rail in South Dade. Ros-Lehtinen hasn’t signed onto other carbon tax proposals like outgoing Rep. Carlos Curbelo’s, where the money raised would partially go to a dividend and fund infrastructure projects. She was one of six Republicans, along with Curbelo and Rooney, who voted against a symbolic measure that stated a carbon tax would be detrimental to the U.S. economy, as portions of her district begin to build pumps and seawalls to fight the effects of climate change.

The congresswoman talks about a candidate in South Florida who has seen aliens.

On foreign policy, Ros-Lehtinen remains a critic of Obama-led efforts in Cuba and Syria, an issue where her perch on the Foreign Relations Middle East Subcommittee gives her clout.

Before what could be her last hearing as a member of Congress, Ros-Lehtinen approached the C-Span cameraman outside the hearing room and jokingly told him to “only focus on me.” Syrian special envoy James Jeffrey and United States Agency for International Development deputy assistant administrator Robert Jenkins testified before a half dozen Republicans and three Democrats. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and said she was “skeptical” that Assad was behind a 2017 chemical weapons attack, is part of the committee but wasn’t present.

Deutch, the top Democrat on the committee, asked Jenkins to describe the situation in Syria in terms everyone can understand.

“I’m from Pasadena, California. The Rose Bowl is there,” said Jenkins, who oversees U.S. foreign aid in Syria. “Fill the Rose Bowl five times. Kill everybody. That’s at least how many people have died. At least 500,000 people.”

Ros-Lehtinen had a pained look on her face.

“The pressure on you and the responsibility on you is enormous and I hope that you carry that weight with you and that heart with you and make all the right decisions for all the right reasons,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

Whether chairing high-profile congressional hearings or dashing the hopes of lobbyists, Ros-Lehtinen is kind. She asks everyone who meets with her about their personal lives, where they went to school and, if they bring up an engagement, babies or dogs she demands to see photos. The first thing she asks at every meeting is for any job prospects for her remaining staff, who will be unemployed in about a month.

The Future

In January, Ros-Lehtinen can take a break from her new job in a student center named after her successor, former University of Miami President Donna Shalala. Ros-Lehtinen plans to work in a variety of undefined consulting roles on LGBT issues and Israel in retirement, but her first order of business will be to teach a class at the University of Miami with her husband Dexter next semester.

Donna Shalala, a Democrat, flipped Miami’s Congressional District 27 in the race to replace Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Emily Michot Miami Herald

Though Ros-Lehtinen campaigned against Shalala during the election, there’s no ill will between them when Shalala drops by to visit during her new-member orientation in Washington. The two chat about Shalala’s priorities for the upcoming Congress, including healthcare, expanding Temporary Protected Status and transportation.

“You’ve got to put your marker out there and do your best because it’s going to be an uphill battle,” Ros-Lehtinen said to Shalala, noting that getting Trump to lift any restrictions on immigration will be next to impossible.

Ros-Lehtinen also offered Shalala a parting gift: a Cuban coffee maker, for the South Florida treat offered to everyone who enters the office. Shalala accepts, noting that continuing to serve Cuban coffee in the office was one of her campaign promises.

It’s not an empty gesture.

Hours later, Ros-Lehtinen asks her staff about the best models of coffeemakers that will work in a congressional office, where using a stove and a moka pot isn’t an option. She also kicks herself for forgetting to remind Shalala to order a mezuzah for the office and have it blessed by a rabbi to fulfill the Jewish commandment to have the words of God on the doorposts of any dwelling, a gesture that Jewish constituents appreciate.

A Shalala aide snaps a photo of the meeting and puts it out on social media with the caption “wonderful chatting with my old friend Ros-Lehtinen about what we can get done when we put aside partisanship and fight for South Florida.” The tweet earns a laudatory message from Miami-Dade Commissioner Eileen Higgins, which Ros-Lehtinen notices hours later scrolling through her iPad while being driven in “The Beast,” a 1990s era Chevy Suburban that lacks a working gas gauge and driver’s side mirror. There’s also a large dent on The Beast’s right side, from the time a former staffer named Guillermo cut a corner and slammed it into a concrete column in a Capitol parking garage.

The Beast crawls through the empty streets of Washington on the way back to Ros-Lehtinen’s Capitol Hill townhouse. A workday that began at 4:30 a.m. in Miami (though Ros-Lehtinen chose to watch a documentary on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” for part of the flight to Washington) ends after 10 p.m. when the work talk on Venezuela fades at the sports bar.

“Some people get mad at me when I say nice things about Democrats,” Ros-Lehtinen said, while considering whether or not to respond to Higgins’ tweet.

She paused, smiled at her screen and retweeted it.

“Life’s too short not to be happy.”