Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (born 1952) is the first Hispanic-American woman to serve in the United States congress.
Being first has become something that Ileana Ros-Lehtinen does quite well. In 1982, she became the first Cuban-born female to be elected to the Florida state legislature. Seven years later, after a successful career as a state legislator, she won a special election held on August 29, 1989, to fill the seat left vacant by the death of long-time Miami political powerhouse Claude D. Pepper. A few days after her victory, Ros-Lehtinen was sworn in as the first Cuban American, as well as the first Hispanic woman, ever elected to the U.S. Congress. "As the first Cuban-American elected to Congress," Boston Globe commentator Chris Black noted, "she also will be likely to become one of the most visible, most quoted Cuban-born politicians in the nation."
Ros-Lehtinen (pronounced ross-LAY-teh-nin), who is known as Lily to her family and friends, was born July 15, 1952, in the Cuban capital city of Havana, to Enrique Emilio Ros, a certified public accountant, and Amanda Adato Ros. In 1960, she and her family—including her parents and a brother—fled to Miami from Cuba, a year after political leader Fidel Castro's revolution rocked that tiny island nation. Almost immediately, Ros-Lehtinen's parents became involved with other recent refugees in plotting the downfall of the Castro regime. But after the failure of an invasion attempt by anti-Castro forces at Cuba's Bay of Pigs in 1961, the possibility of returning to Cuba became more and more remote, and Ros vowed to raise his children as loyal Americans. His wife recalled in a Boston Globe article how strongly her husband felt about his decision: "He said you cannot educate two kids without a flag and a country. This is going to be their country and they have to love it."
Ros-Lehtinen earned her associate of arts degree from Miami-Dade County Community College in 1972 and her bachelor of arts degree in English from Miami's Florida International University in 1975. Eleven years later she completed requirements for a master of science in educational leadership from the same institution. Since then, she has continued her studies as a doctoral candidate in educational administration at the University of Miami. Before embarking on her political career, Ros-Lehtinen worked as a teacher and was principal for ten years at Eastern Academy, a school she founded. Her love of politics came as a legacy from her father who had concentrated so much of his life on the hope of restoring democracy to his native land. He is said to have been the chief architect of her political career and was at her side when she announced her victory in her U.S. Congressional race.
Launched Political Career as State Representative
Ros-Lehtinen's first elected office was in the Florida state legislature, where she served as a representative from 1982 to 1986 and as a state senator from 1986 to 1989. While in the state legislature she met her future husband, Dexter Lehtinen, who was also at the time a member of that legislative body. Although early in her career Ros-Lehtinen showed a tendency to focus on issues of a global nature rather than on those affecting her constituents in a personal way, Black wrote in the Boston Globe that Ros-Lehtinen eventually became "a politician of the opposite extreme, a pragmatic legislator focused almost exclusively on the most parochial of issues. One Miami political reporter now describes her as 'a pothole kind of legislator,' much more concerned with the specific needs of individuals and businesses in her district than broader changes in public policy."
When Ros-Lehtinen resigned her seat in the state senate shortly before the August 3, 1989, primary, it appeared— much to the dismay of the Miami area's non-Hispanic voters—that the race to fill Florida's 18th congressional district seat might be a head-to-head battle between two Cuban American women. Early favorites included Ros-Lehtinen on the Republican side and Miami City Commissioner Rosario Kennedy for the Democrats. However, the opponent who emerged from the primary was Gerald F. Richman, an attorney, a former president of the Florida Bar Association, and a Jew. The Ros-Lehtinen-Richman campaign was marked by deep cultural and racial tensions and came to be one of the most ethnically divided congressional races in Florida's history. A highlight of an otherwise brutal contest came from President George Bush who not only gave Ros-Lehtinen his personal endorsement, but made a special trip to Miami to deliver a speech on her behalf.
Most of the controversy surrounding the campaign grew out of a response to Republican party chair Lee Atwater's announcement that since the district was 50 percent Hispanic, electing a Cuban American to the seat was of utmost importance. Richman, the Democratic candidate, was quoted in a Time article as having countered Atwater's claim with the assertion, "This is an American seat." Cuban American and other Hispanic voters were deeply offended by Richman's reply and the implication it carried that Hispanics are not truly Americans. Spanish-speaking radio stations in the Miami area assured their listeners that a vote for Richman would be the equivalent of voting for Castro. Another source of division during the campaign came from the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) which, according to reports in National Review, attempted to run Ros-Lehtinen's campaign from Washington. William McGurn explained the problem with a quote from a Republican insider: "The NRCC treated this district like a colony… . Their attitude was that they knew Florida's 18th better than the people who live here."
Won Turbulent Race for U.S. Congressional Seat
Triumphing over the bitterness of the campaign, Ros-Lehtinen emerged victorious from the race, capturing 53 percent of the vote. Post-election analysis showed that voters largely seemed to cast their ballot based on their ethnic heritage: 96 percent of blacks and 88 percent of non-Hispanic whites voted for Democratic candidate Richman; while 90 percent of Hispanics, who voted in record numbers, voted for Ros-Lehtinen. In her victory speech, the new congresswoman maintained that she would work to heal the wounds caused by the campaign. "It's been a terrible divisive campaign," she told the New York Times. "But now it's time for healing. I know that there are a lot of people out there who feel alienated." Ros-Lehtinen's win was also seen as a victory for the Republican party because the seat she had captured had belonged to the Democrats for 26 years. When Ros-Lehtinen's seat came up for election in 1990, she received 60 percent of the vote and a decisive mandate to continue her political career.
During her tenure, Ros-Lehtinen has been a member of the Foreign Affairs committee and has served on its subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations as well as its subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs. She has also been involved with the subcommittee on Employment and Housing, where she is the ranking minority member. In an article focusing on Hispanic political candidates, which appeared in Hispanic, Anna Maria Arias described Ros-Lehtinen's stand on issues important to voters in her district. According to Arias, Ros-Lehtinen supports bilingual education, is "in favor of a seven-day waiting period for the purchasing of guns, and voted for a bill that would improve veterans' benefits." Ros-Lehtinen is also vehemently anti-abortion, except to save a woman's life, favors a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning, and advocates the death penalty for convicted organizers of drug rings.
True to her ethnic roots, Ros-Lehtinen remains a staunch adversary of Castro and an equally outspoken champion of a free Cuba. In 1990, she expressed her strong opposition to South-African leader Nelson Mandela's visit to Florida during his eight-city tour of the United States. a trip that engendered a virtual hero's welcome for him in the other states to which he traveled. While there seemed to be a near unanimous outpouring of praise for Mandela and his efforts to end apartheid (racial segregation) in his native country, Ros-Lehtinen felt she could not honor a man who had not only publicly embraced such advocates of violent revolution as the Palestine Liberation Organization's Yasser Arafat and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, but who also was on record as a strong supporter of Castro. She pointed out that Cuban Americans longing for a return to democracy in their country of origin could not forget that members of Mandela's African National Congress had received military training on Cuban soil.
Voiced Opposition to 1991 Pan American Games
Ros-Lehtinen again spoke out against Castro when she condemned participation in the Pan American Games, an Olympics-like international sports competition, held in Cuba during the first two weeks of August in 1991. She argued that Castro's bid to have the Games in his country was merely a ploy to bolster Cuba's ailing economy and to provide ready propaganda supporting his regime. In a Christian Science Monitor article on the topic, the congresswoman wrote: "Castro has his circus for now, but despite the fanfare of the Pan American Games, he is an anachronism in a world that values democracy and freedom. It will not be long till he follows the path of the dinosaurs into extinction. Cuba's economic crisis is so desperate that Castro would shave his own beard if that would give him the American dollars which he holds so dear."
The ethnic pride Ros-Lehtinen inherited from her father remains strong in the politician, and perhaps because of this, she is very conscious of her position as a role model for Hispanics. She also values the achievements made by other Hispanic women, and when presented with a special award from Hispanic magazine in 1992, she praised their successes. "[The Hispanic woman] is an accomplished writer, or a computer programmer, or an attorney, or a doctor, as well as a loving wife and mother." She also believes that Hispanic women will continue to make contributions in the future. "Now, more than ever," she wrote in Vista, "we Hispanic women must re-energize and refocus our efforts to realize the vast potential that lies within our grasp."
Boston Globe, August 31, 1989, p. 3.
Christian Science Monitor, August 9, 1991, p. 18.
Hispanic, September 1990, p. S5; October 1990, p. 26; August 1992, p. 28.
Ladies' Home Journal, November 1991, p. 182.
National Catholic Reporter, April 19, 1991, p. 1.
National Review, November 24, 1989, p. 39.
New York Times, August 31, 1989, p. A16; October 22, 1996, p.A24.
Time, September 11, 1989, p. 31.
Vista, February 4, 1992, pp. 6, 22.
Washington Post, July 30, 1989, p. A4; August 17, 1989, p. A4. □