Op-Ed

Political heavyweight Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is no ordinary politician

Longtime U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, shown here in 2013, announced Sunday that she would retire from Congress next year.
Longtime U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, shown here in 2013, announced Sunday that she would retire from Congress next year. AP

She’s not gone and won’t be for quite a while. But I already miss Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Her retirement will leave a gaping hole in South Florida’s political landscape, one that will not be easily filled. No successor I can think of will have her immense political skills, charismatic personality, or Capitol clout. Or have as much fun as she does. Ily, as her friends — and even reporters call her — is hands down the best politician around.

And I mean that as a compliment.

To everything there is a season, as it says in Ecclesiastes, and Ileana feels that hers — at least in elective office — is at an end. But what a run she’s had. It began when she was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1982, then to the Florida Senate in 1986 and to the U.S. House in 1989. Each time it was a first for a Hispanic woman. She’s been a groundbreaker on many fronts.

I covered her first congressional race, a special election to fill the seat left open by the death of the legendary Claude Pepper. She beat a big-time trial lawyer (and former Florida Bar president) named Gerry Richman, who seemed to have the upper hand early on — until he adopted his campaign slogan: “It’s an American seat.”

Richman was no bigot, but refused to disavow what was rightly perceived as an anti-Cuban slogan. Ileana teed off on it and won with overwhelming Hispanic support. She’s won ever since with votes from every demographic group and party.

But her victory margin last November was surprisingly small — only about 10 points — against a weak Democratic opponent, who’s already running again. Without Ileana in the race any number of candidates from both parties will come out of the woodwork. I suspect she looked at the numbers and concluded she’d have had a tough time keeping her seat in 2018, a year Democrats are expected to do well. So she’s going out on top and on her own terms. Good for her.

Even though her district grew increasingly blue, Ileana won re-election by dint of excellent constituent service, a high media profile, and mostly moderate positions. Although she was born in Cuba and has been a consistent hard-liner against the Castro regime, she made it clear from the outset that she wasn’t a one-trick Cuba-centric pony. When redistricting put the Florida Keys into her district, she spent a good deal of time there and sent her district office chief down weekly to help fix problems. The Key West Citizen once headlined an editorial about her something like this: “She may be a Republican, but she’s Our Congresswoman.” It was all made easier by her sympathetic stand for gay rights and same sex marriage long before it was fashionable. That began at home where she and husband Dexter unflinchingly supported their transgender daughter’s transition to male. They stood by him all the way.

She’s had a remarkable run for a number of reasons. Because she not only cared about democracy in Cuba, she cared about it in Nicaragua and Venezuela and where it was threatened around the world. She has had a special passion for Israel and is considered one of that country’s staunchest supporters in Congress. She had a platform to do so as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the first Hispanic woman to hold that position. Ironically, a former chair of HFAC was the late Dante Fascell, another outstanding congressman from roughly the same part of Miami-Dade. Fascell, a Democrat, befriended and mentored Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, who listened to his counsel and grew to become an expert in foreign policy.

I’d ascribe much of her success is to her infectious personality. She’s likeable without ever working too hard at it. She’s also unafraid to speak out for the causes she believes in and denounce those she doesn’t. Donald Trump didn’t win her favor or vote last year and she wasn’t reluctant to say so. At the same time, she never disrespected him publicly.

She can, however, be blunt. I recall interviewing her on TV years ago and asking what kind of future Cuba would have post-Fidel. Without missing a beat she said it would be fine with her if someone put a bullet through his head that very day.

Ileana was lucky to have some brilliant people behind her over the years, starting with her late father, Enrique Ros. He could give you the statistics on how individual precincts had voted in her last election. Her late mother, Amanda, lovely and smart, was also a huge help politically. And her long and successful career wouldn’t have been possible without her husband, Dexter Lehtinen, a brilliant political tactician in his own right.

But what has made Ileana special is her honesty and authenticity. She speaks in distinct and honest voice, often without a PC filter. And even though she’s an extremely influential member of Congress, she has always worn her power lightly.

At the same time, some friends and admirers say, she hasn’t been afraid to neatly slice up her Congressional opponents to win approval for her bills and policy positions. That’s part of being a good politician: Reward your friends, punish your enemies. Ileana did, like a skilled surgeon with a scalpel.

I’ve had a few skirmishes with Ileana over the years, but none that caused a rupture. She refused to debate her first congressional opponent, with which I disagreed, and I later objected when she did the same years later with another opponent. But unlike some other politicians, she looked me in the eye and told me why I was wrong and nicely told me to stuff it. There’s another trait that has endeared her to reporters —accessibility. She never ran and hid from tough questions.

Buenas suerte, Ileana. I’ll miss you and so, I suspect, will most people in the 27th Congressional District, which stretches from Southwest Miami-Dade to South Beach. I couldn’t count how many times voters there have told me they’re Democrats, but always vote for Ileana. Congratulations on an outstanding run. You served us, and the nation, with distinction — and without a whiff of scandal.

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