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Ros-Lehtinen, Ileana: 1952—: U.S. Congressional Representative

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: 1952: U.S. Congressional representative

The first Cuban American and the first Hispanic woman elected to the United States Congress, Ileana RosLehtinen has become, in the words of the Boston Globe, "a living symbol of Cuban-American achievement." RosLehtinen is a staunch conservative and an implacable foe of the communist regime of Cuba's Fidel Castro, but she has diverged from the usual positions of the Republican Party to which she belongs on issues relating to the treatment of immigrants. An outspoken woman often in the headlines for her sharp advocacy of positions she believes in, Ros-Lehtinen is a fixture of south Florida's colorful political scene.

Quickly Adapted to New Country

The daughter of accountant Enrique Ros and his wife Amanda Adato Ros, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was born in Havana, Cuba, on July 15, 1952. She was raised Catholic like most other Cubans, but her mother's father was Jewish. The family left Cuba in 1960, a year after Castro seized power, and supported the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion aimed at toppling the Castro government in 1961. After that effort failed, however, the Ros children were raised as Americans.

Ileana spoke no English at all when she arrived in Miami, but she adapted quickly to her new homeland. "She was such a normal person to grow up with," her childhood friend Maria St. George told the Globe. "When I first met her she was a very American Cuban, not very Latin."

That quick adaptation, however, masked much hard work. Growing up in the 1960s, Ros-Lehtinen did not have the benefit of bilingual education classes, and she would resist Republican-inspired English-only legislation when she became a political leader. "I was lost during the first year I was in the United States because we did not have those bilingual programs," she told Insight on the News. "In my second year it was better, and in my third year I was ready for my English classroom." Ros-Lehtinen's father stressed the importance of education, living away from his family for a time in order to improve his English and eventually earning an American college degree through night courses in Miami.

Ros-Lehtinen chose an educational career for herself, earning an associate's degree at Miami-Dade Community College in 1972 and going on for a bachelor's degree at Florida International University in 1975. In 1986 she earned a master's in educational leadership from the same school, and she began work on her doctorate in the 1990s. After teaching for several years in the mid-1970s, she opened a private elementary school of her own, the Eastern Academy, teaching and serving as its principal until 1985.

At a Glance . . .

Born Ileana Ros on July 15, 1952, in Havana, Cuba; daughter of Enrique Emilio Ros and Amanda Adato Ros; married Dexter Lehtinen; children: Amanda, Patricia; stepchildren: Katharine, Douglas. Education: Miami-Dade Community College, AA, 1972; Florida International University, BA, 1975, MS, 1986; University of Miami, doctoral studies, 1990s. Politics: Republican.

Career: Teacher, mid-1970s; Eastern Academy Elementary School, founder, principal, and teacher, 1978-85; Florida House of Representatives, state representative, 1982-86; Florida Senate, state senator, 1986-89; U.S. House of Representatives, Florida's 18th District representative, 1989; Committee on International Operations & Human Rights, chair, 2001.

Addresses: Office 2160 Rayburn House Office Bldg., Washington, DC 20515. Website

Won First Election

By the time Ros-Lehtinen had retired from the Eastern Academy she already had entered politics. She inherited her interest in politics from her father, who has been described as the mastermind of her political career, but she took naturally to the backslapping world of politics on her own and as of 2003 has never lost an election. Elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1982, she spent four years there and then won election to the state senate in 1986. There she gained not only political contacts but also a husband: fellow legislator Dexter Lehtinen was a Miami lawyer who served as U.S. attorney for south Florida during the administration of President George H.W. Bush. The couple raised two children of their own as well as two children from Lehtinen's previous marriage, and RosLehtinen's parents, who lived across the street, were there to help out as she juggled motherhood and her rising career trajectory.

Ros-Lehtinen's breakthrough to the national level came in 1989 with the death of longtime Democratic Rep. Claude Pepper. Both the Democratic and Republican primaries to replace Pepper in an 18th district special election were hotly contested, and Ros-Lehtinen emerged as the opponent of Democratic lawyer Gerald Richman. The ensuing campaign was marked by charges of racism on both sides, as Republicans stressed the importance of electing a Cuban candidate while Richman retorted that the seat in Congress should be regarded as an "American seat" rather than as one belonging to any particular group. Ros-Lehtinen won the election with 53 percent of the vote, gaining an overwhelming majority of the Cuban-American vote but losing heavily among Anglo- and African-American voters. After taking her place in Congress in 1989 she made gestures of reconciliation and was reelected easily in subsequent contests.

During her years in the state legislature, Ros-Lehtinen had moved from a focus on the Cuba issue to the nuts and bolts of constituent service, and in Congress she worked on a mix of national, international, and local issues. She continued to resist any weakening of the U.S. government's anti-Castro policies, emerging as a strong supporter of the Helms-Burton Act (which slapped penalties on companies that traded with the Cuban regime) and leading an ultimately successful drive to block construction of a Cuban nuclear reactor. In 2000 Ros-Lehtinen found herself in the thick of the controversy over six-year-old Cuban Elian Gonzalez, who became the object of a tug-of-war between his Florida relatives and his father in Cuba after a boat carrying him and his mother sank; Elian was rescued after his mother was killed.

Took on More Controversial Issues

"No one talks about Elian's mother, about her sacrifice, so he could reach liberty in this beautiful country," Ros-Lehtinen was quoted as saying by the New York Times. The Cuban government (according to the Times ) called her a "ferocious wolf disguised as a woman," to Ros-Lehtinen's delight. Ros-Lehtinen's already high profile in south Florida was raised further, and her husband contemplated a run for mayor of Miami in the early 2000s. Ros-Lehtinen, as chair of the House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights beginning in 2001, emerged as a strong supporter of Israel and of President George W. Bush's foreign policies, as well as working to scuttle attempts to open up agricultural trade with Cuba. In 2003 she raised eyebrows when she denounced a State Department analyst during administration infighting over how to deal with an Iranian exile group active in Iraq during the Gulf War, calling him a "weasel," and a "gutless bureaucrat who won't come out of his cave," according to The Hill.

Ros-Lehtinen's record on domestic issues was mixed and often pragmatic. Conservative in her basic orientation, she was strongly opposed to abortion and in 2000 sponsored a bill (ultimately passed by the House by a 417-0 vote) to ban the execution of pregnant women. She has been active in the area of crime victims' rights and has proposed a constitutional victims' rights amendment. On other issues such as reductions in welfare payments to immigrants, RosLehtinen deserted her Republican colleagues. She refused to sign the Contract with America during the 1994 congressional campaign due to what she considered its anti-immigrant bias, and she urged the party to pay more attention to immigrants' concerns. In 2003 she plunged into the controversial issue of the proposed merger between the giant Spanish-language broadcast firms Univision and HBC, urging government regulators to approve the merger.

"I wish our party would be more aggressive in courting [the] Hispanic vote but because of welfare and immigration reform and English-only issues we are afraid to try and solicit their support," Ros-Lehtinen was quoted as saying by The Almanac of American Politics. With the Hispanic vote increasingly up for grabs and RosLehtinen's trademark frosted dark hair an increasingly visible presence at the national level, it seemed likely that Republican policymakers would listen closely to what she had to say. Hers was already an immigrant success story of the first order.



Barone, Michael, and Richard E. Cohen, with Charles E. Cook Jr., The Almanac of American Politics 2002, National Journal, 2001.

Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.

Newsmakers 2000, Issue 2, Gale, 2000.


Boston Globe, August 31, 1989, p. 3.

Insight on the News, February 22, 1999, p. 21.

The Hill, April 8, 2003, p. 4.

Jerusalem Post, March 11, 2003, p. 4.

Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News Service, February 27, 2003.

National Right to Life News, August 2000.

New York Times, January 10, 2000, p. A12.

St. Petersburg Times, August 30, 1989, p. A1.

Time, September 11, 1989, p. 31.


"Ileana Ros-Lehtinen," U.S. House of Representatives, (May 29, 2003).

James M. Manheim

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