Democratic challenger hits Ros-Lehtinen on her signature issue: Cuba

Democrat Scott Fuhrman, a first-time candidate, is challenging Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Democrat Scott Fuhrman, a first-time candidate, is challenging Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. emichot@miamiherald.com

In a play to win over Hispanic and independent voters, Miami Democrat Scott Fuhrman is using his first TV ads as a congressional candidate to cast Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as out of touch on one of her signature issues: Cuba policy.

Fuhrman’s ads, which started airing Tuesday in English and Spanish, begin with a clip from President Barack Obama’s historic speech earlier this year in Havana.

“I offer the Cuban people el saludo de paz,” Obama said — the greeting of peace.

Then it cuts to Fuhrman.

“Historic: opening the U.S. to Cuba. A chance at a better life for millions of Cubans. For Cubans here, a chance to finally visit home”" he says. “But Ileana Ros-Lehtinen clutches to the past, standing in the way of progress, turning her back on the Cuban people.”

Fuhrman concludes by saying, “I will support the president’s leadership — not stand in his way.” If he were to defeat Ros-Lehtinen, though, he’d only serve a few days under Obama before a new president came into the White House.

Fuhrman’s campaign said the $250,000 ad buy will play over the next 10 days on local stations and cable.

The Democratic challenger is embracing Obama as polls have shown a significant shift in recent years when it comes to Miami-Dade County voters’ views on Cuba. A recent survey of Cuban Americans showed a clear majority for the first time opposes the U.S. trade embargo. It also showed majority support for Obama's move to seek closer ties with Cuba.

The veteran Ros-Lehtinen is a well-known Cuba hardliner, opposing the president’s reengagement with the communist island. For weeks on television and in the mail, she has been bashing Fuhrman over his past brushes with the law, including his criminal driving record.

Ros-Lehtinen’s campaign manager and husband, Dexter Lehtinen, dismissed Fuhrman’s attack as “an old campaign playbook: trying to label Ileana as a one issue Congresswoman.

In fact, South Florida knows differently. Ileana has led on human rights around the world, promoted our local economy, worked to combat the effects of sea level rise, and prides herself on her rapid and effective constituent service,” Lehtinen said in a statement. Fuhrman, he added, “ignores the fact that following the concessions to the Castro regime, oppression has increased in Cuba and the number of people risking their lives to flee the dictatorship that represses them has also increased.”

Lehtinen concluded that Fuhrman is “out of his depth here.”

Fuhrman is a first-time candidate with little name recognition in Florida’s 27th congressional district. Ros-Lehtinen’s sustained campaign in the mail and on the airwaves, which includes a pair of positive ads about herself, has been noteworthy because she's not considered a particularly vulnerable political target. Her coastal Miami-Dade district, however, leans Democratic for the first time. Her most recent ads tout her concern over sea-level rise, saying Ros-Lehtinen “worked to arrest the effects of sea-level rise: because our community’s jobs depend on pristine beaches and natural beauty.” It’s an unusual line from a congressional Republican.

Ros-Lehtinen has also refused to back Donald Trump.

The Florida Democratic Party recently stepped in to help Fuhrman, mailing fliers accusing Ros-Lehtinen of going “on vacation” when the Zika virus hit South Florida. Congress was in recess for seven weeks as the virus spread over the summer but has since approved federal funds to combat Zika.

“After 26 years in Congress, Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen has changed,” the fliers say. “When she went on vacation while Zika invaded South Florida, she proved she’s become just another Washington politician.”