Despite being a state since 1845, Florida hasn’t exactly been prominent on Capitol Hill throughout most of that time. Most senators and representatives from Florida simply failed to left much of an impression on the national stage though there are a handful of exceptions ranging from David Levy Yulee to Duncan Fletcher to Claude Pepper.
After almost thirty years in Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was one of those exceptions. First coming to Congress in 1989 after winning a special election to replace Pepper, Ros-Lehtinen made her mark on Capitol Hill.
The daughter of prominent businessman Enrique Ros, Ros-Lehtinen was born in Havana in 1952. Her family fled the Castro regime in 1960, relocating to South Florida where Ros-Lehtinen earned an Ed.D and led a school before being elected to the Florida House where she met her husband Dexter Lehtinen, a state representative from Miami who flipped from the Democrats to the GOP right before he married her in 1985.
The first Cuban-American and Latina in Congress, Ros-Lehtinen focused on foreign policy during her three decades in Congress. A supporter of both the Bush presidencies, Ros-Lehtinen advocated for a robust foreign policy including opposing tyranny in the Western Hemisphere, backing Israel and supporting the war against terrorism. Rising up the ranks, Ros-Lehtinen became the first woman to lead the House Foreign Affairs Committee and she ended her time in Congress as the chairwoman of the important Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee.
Ros-Lehtinen’s personal experiences--from her family fleeing the communist tyranny in Cuba to her grandparents being Sephardic Jews who helped lead the Cuban Jewish community--helped shape her actions in Congress. During her 29 years in Congress, Ros-Lehtinen ranked as one of Israel’s chief supporters on Capitol Hill. She also was a firm opponent of communism, South American regimes including the current one leading Venezuela and Islamic terrorism. Ros-Lehtinen has also been very critical of the United Nations as it continues to coddle anti-Semitism and tyrannical regimes. From her seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Ros-Lehtinen went out of her way to use that perch to push legislation to help Israel and other allies while punishing rogue regimes and cracking down on terrorism.
Her personal experiences have also shaped her stance on LGBT issues. A supporter of traditional marriage, including backing the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, Ros-Lehtinen moved left on the issue in recent years thanks in large part to her transgender son Rodrigo who works on LGBT issues. Ros-Lehtinen became the first congressional Republican to back same sex marriage in 2012 though social and religious conservatives have applauded her on other issues, including her opposition to abortion.
In recent years, Ros-Lehtinen has been critical of the GOP, including taking aim at President Donald Trump who she cheerfully admits she did not vote for. Ros-Lehtinen has broken with Trump on several fronts, including immigration. Still, Ros-Lehtinen remains a Republican and insists she is not leaving Congress due to Trump. While Democrat Donna Shalala flipped the seat in November by beating Maria Elvira Salazar, Ros-Lehtinen remains popular in her district and never really was in any jeopardy of losing her seat, even as Democrats continue to make strides there.
Back in 2015, Ros-Lehtinen was honored with a portrait in the Capitol which is hanging in the House Foreign Affairs Committee room.
“I’m humbled by this moment but the true credit goes to my family, friends, constituents, and colleagues who placed such trust in me,” Ros-Lehtinen said when the portrait was unveiled in November 2015.
“I’m especially grateful to my constituents, who have honored me with the privilege of representing and advocating for our South Florida community,” Ros-Lehtinen added. “As a young Cuban refugee who didn’t speak a word of English, I could not have imagined that one day my portrait would hang in the halls of Congress. However, this portrait is a testament to all those, like my parents Enrique and Amanda Ros, who worked diligently for freedom in their native homeland of Cuba and around the world. This day is for them.”
Some of the leading figures in Congress including U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., were at the unveiling. So was former UN Amb. John Bolton who is now part of Trump’s team as national security advisor, Cuban democracy activist Jorge Luis Garcia Perez “Antunez,” Holocaust survivor David Mermelstein and human rights activist Harry Wu. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., took part in the ceremony with a taped message.
The honor was well deserved. While she cast a far larger shadow on Capitol Hill than she did in the Sunshine State thanks largely to her focus on international issues, Ros-Lehtinen leaves Congress as one of the more prominent members of the Florida delegation over the last 170 years.