Lehman, William

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LEHMAN, WILLIAM (1913–2005), U.S. congressman. A native of Selma, Ala. and its small Jewish community, William Lehman attended the University of Alabama where he earned his B.A. in 1934. He then moved to the Miami Dade area where he became a successful auto dealer. He never shed his roots. In Miami he was known as Alabama Bill. He returned to college to earn his teaching credentials in English and then became a teacher at Miami Norland Junior High School, Miami, Fla., and Miami Dade Junior College, Miami, Fla. (1965–66), before becoming a member and then chairman of the Dade County, Fla., school board (1966–72), where he managed to take the board through the divisive problems of desegregation. His deep Southern accent and Alabama roots helped him navigate deep communal tensions as he relentlessly pushed for desegregation. He was first elected to Congress in 1972 in a crowded field of seven candidates in a new congressional district established after the 1970 census as Florida's population rapidly expanded. No one expected him to win. Desegregation was not very popular, but he won as a liberal Democrat, and continued to maintain that reputation by supporting public transit and child-care assistance and championing Social Security, which was popular among his many retired constituents. He also was a strong advocate for refugee resettlement for Cuban and Haitian immigrants and was a particular and deeply involved champion of the Soviet Jewry movement. He took his commitments personally and once traveled to the Soviet Union to deliver an artificial heart valve to a 22-year-old Soviet woman.

In Congress, Lehman started out as a member of the House Education and Labor Committee. He was most closely associated with the powerful House Appropriations Committee, where he chaired the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee that pushed for public transport, and served on the Foreign Operations Subcommittee, so important to U.S. aid to Israel. In 1980 he was instrumental in getting $100 million for Cuban refugee resettlement when the Mariel Boat Lift looked like it would overwhelm Southern Florida. He developed jaw cancer in 1983, which slightly slurred his speech but did not slow him down and he retired in 1992 undefeated.


L.S. Maisel and I.N. Forman, Jews in American Politics (2001).

[Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]

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Lehman, William

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