Fernández, Mayra. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lawmaker (Beginning Biographies). Cleveland: Modern Curriculum Press, 1994.
A childhood refugee from Cuba, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen emerged as a powerful voice in her South Florida community and as a critic of Fidel Castro’s communist regime. In 1989 she made history as the first Hispanic woman and the first Cuban American elected to the U.S. Congress. In her three decades in the House she left her mark as a foreign policy leader and human rights advocate, most especially from her position on the Foreign Affairs Committee. “I still can’t believe that I was chair of that wonderful committee: the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee,” Ros-Lehtinen mused. “And to think that just a few years before, I had come, sitting in a little intern desk, not even part of the dais.”1
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was born Ileana Ros in Havana, Cuba, on July 15, 1952, to Enrique Ros and Amanda Adato Ros.2 At the age of eight, she moved with her family to the United States shortly after Castro came to power in 1959. “We came to the United States on one of the last commercial flights leaving Cuba, to the United States, a Pan-Am flight,” she recalled, “and we were so optimistic that this revolution would blow over that we bought a round trip ticket.”3 As the communist dictator consolidated control, and the military state strengthened, Ros-Lehtinen and her family joined a growing number of Cuban exiles who settled in Miami and gradually made the United States their home. Her mother worked in a hotel on Miami Beach, and her father found employment in a local laundry shop. After graduating from Southwest Miami High School in 1970, Ros-Lehtinen earned an associate degree from Miami-Dade Community College in 1972, a bachelor’s in higher education from Florida International University (FIU) in 1975, and a master’s in educational leadership from FIU in 1985. In 2004 she earned a PhD in higher education from the University of Miami. She also founded a private elementary school with her parents, working as a teacher and as its chief administrator.4
As an educator, Ros-Lehtinen routinely served as a liaison for immigrant parents needing assistance translating forms and navigating the complexities of the U.S. government. This outreach led her to seek political office to expand her level of assistance beyond individual cases.5 In 1982 Ros-Lehtinen won a seat in the Florida house of representatives, making headlines as the first Hispanic woman to serve in the state legislature. Four years later, she won a seat in the Florida senate. In the state legislature, she met and married her husband, Dexter Lehtinen, who also served in the Florida house and senate, and who went on to serve as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. Ros-Lehtinen has two children and two stepchildren.6
When veteran Congressman Claude Denson Pepper died in May 1989, Ros-Lehtinen entered the race to fill his South Florida seat in the House. “What really drove me to Congress, even though I loved the Florida house and I loved the Florida senate even more,” Ros-Lehtinen explained, “was I missed that international aspect of what I wanted to do, to help people who are oppressed and repressed and who have no human rights, and shine a little bit of democracy on them, and hope and pray and work toward a better day for all of the people who are living under authoritarian regimes. So you could do that a little bit in the Florida legislature, but really, it’s Congress where you come to get international work done.”7
Ros-Lehtinen used the strong community ties she developed in the state legislature to run an effective grassroots campaign. After easily defeating three opponents for the Republican nomination, she faced Gerald Richman, a Miami Beach lawyer and former chairman of the Florida Bar Association in the August 29, 1989, special election.8
The competitive race drew national attention. The Republican Party viewed the contest as a chance to capture a Democratic stronghold and Hispanic leaders hoped to send a Cuban American to Congress. The district was diverse, and the campaign grew contentious when Lee Atwater, the Republican national chairman, declared the vacant seat should go to a Cuban American. Richman, a New York native, responded by calling it an “American seat.”9 “It was a bitter campaign,” Ros-Lehtinen later recalled. “I would not want to relive a moment of that one, as exhilarating as it was to finally win. It turned into a very divisive, ethnically-oriented campaign.”10
On Election Day, Ros-Lehtinen defeated Richman with 53 percent of the vote. Her victory put the seat in Republican hands for the first time since its creation in 1962, and Ros-Lehtinen became the first Hispanic woman and the first Cuban American elected to Congress. “Katie Couric was interviewing me, and she said, ‘How does it feel to be the first Latina elected to Congress?’ And I thought, ‘Gee, I don’t want to correct you, Katie, I mean it’s wonderful to be elected as a Member of Congress. I’m going to take my job seriously, but I don’t think I’m the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress.’ And she goes, ‘Oh, trust me we’ve done our research, you are.’”11
For the majority of her career, Ros-Lehtinen won re-election with comfortable margins of victory, including several cycles where she ran unopposed.12 In her final election in 2016, Ros-Lehtinen prevailed with 55 percent of the vote.13 During her 30 years in Congress the diverse, majority-Hispanic district included much of Miami as well as Miami Beach, Coral Gables, and the Florida Keys. Later in her tenure, redistricting meant she lost the Florida Keys and Miami Beach but kept Little Havana and added new areas in Miami with a high concentration of Hispanic voters.14
Sworn into Congress on September 6, 1989, Ros-Lehtinen received assignments on the Foreign Affairs and Government Reform Committees. She served on Foreign Affairs for her entire career and on Government Reform until 2007. Ros-Lehtinen also served on three other committees for one term each: Budget (109th Congress, 2005–2007), Rules (113th Congress, 2013–2015), and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (115th Congress, 2017–2019).
When Ros-Lehtinen joined the House in 1989 there were no open seats on the Foreign Affairs Committee. But she enlisted the help of Dante Druno Fascell, the Democratic chairman of Foreign Affairs, who represented a neighboring Florida district. Fascell went to House leadership and convinced them to change the committee’s party ratio, creating a vacancy specifically for Ros-Lehtinen.15 As a member of Foreign Affairs she fulfilled her campaign promise to oppose the communist regime in Cuba by backing a strict economic embargo of the island nation. In 1992 she helped build support for passage of the Cuban Democracy Act which restricted subsidiaries of American companies from trading with Cuba.16 During her more than three-decade career in the House, she continued to push economic sanctions against Castro in an effort to isolate his regime. “The only embargo that has to be lifted is the embargo on freedom, human rights and democracy that the Cuban dictator has imposed on the people of Cuba,” Ros-Lehtinen noted.17
In the winter of 1999 and 2000, Ros-Lehtinen made headlines for her involvement in a high-profile refugee case involving five-year-old, Elián Gonzáles, who had fled Cuba for the United States with his mother. Elián had been saved by American rescuers after his mother drowned, and in the ensuing months an international custody battle ensued between Elián’s family in Miami and his father who lived in Cuba. Ros-Lehtinen passionately argued that the boy should remain in Florida. Her direct involvement, including personal visits with Elián and his American relatives, led the Cuban newspaper Granma to characterize Ros-Lehtinen as a “ferocious wolf disguised as a woman.”18 She readily embraced the criticism.19
Ros-Lehtinen earned support among her Cuban-American constituents for her tenacious approach to the Castro government and her larger commitment to human rights. “Cuba is more than the birthplace stamped on my passport. It defines me,” she asserted. “But a lot of folks don’t understand that a lot of what I do is not tied to Cuba. I love to work on advancing the cause of freedom for Cuba. But I’m that and so much more.”20 As the chairperson of several Foreign Affairs subcommittees—Africa; International Economic Policy and Trade; International Operations and Human Rights; and Middle East and Central Asia—Ros-Lehtinen expanded her legislative interests and drew attention to genocides in Rwanda and Burundi, as well as flagrant human rights abuses in countries like China, Belarus, Iran, and Sudan. In Congress, she authored legislation condemning the use of human shields, brought attention to the plight of impoverished women in Africa and the Middle East, and sought to prevent unstable governments from securing nuclear weapons.21 She sought to strengthen ties with Israel, fight anti-Semitism across the globe, and enable financial compensation for survivors and families of the victims killed during the Holocaust.22 During the global HIV crisis she worked on the federal government’s PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), and called PEPFAR one of her proudest achievements as a Member of Congress.23 “In every one of my subcommittees, I have found just a great opportunity to shine the light on a plight of people, who maybe other people don’t know that they have it so rough,” Ros-Lehtinen observed.24
In 2007, at the opening of the 110th Congress (2007–2009), Ros-Lehtinen became the top-ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, moving ahead of more senior colleagues to attain the post. In the 112th Congress (2011–2013), when Republicans reclaimed the House majority, Ros-Lehtinen won the gavel as chair of the committee, making her the first woman ever to lead Foreign Affairs. As chairperson, Ros-Lehtinen continued to voice her opposition to the communist regime of Cuba and to promote human rights around the world. She emphasized the dangers of extremist groups and worked to enact economic sanctions against countries like Iran to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons.25 “Chairs need to be faithful to their convictions but aware that, as a leader, they’re representing a myriad of interests,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “I may have a particular interest, but you can’t use the gavel to speak for yourself.”26 At the end of the 112th Congress, Ros-Lehtinen abided by the Republican Conference’s term limit rule (which allows Members to serve three terms as Chair, Ranking Member, or a combination of the two), and relinquished the gavel. She continued to serve on the committee until she left the House at the end of the 115th Congress (2017–2019).
Alongside her foreign policy specialty, Ros-Lehtinen took a keen interest in domestic affairs that directly affected her South Florida district. She fought to conserve the Everglades and to preserve “Stiltsville,” a collection of cottages on the edge of the Biscayne Bay. She opposed offshore drilling near the Florida coastline and helped secure federal money to dredge the Miami River.27 Ros-Lehtinen, who served Cuban coffee and eagerly posed for pictures with visitors to her office, took pride in her constituent services, particularly in cases involving immigrants.28 “Even though I could list my legislative accomplishments,” she recalled, “I don’t think that those are as long-lasting and important as the impact that I hope that I had on individuals in my district fighting deportation or getting their residency or their citizenship or into public housing.”29
As a refugee and the Representative of a diverse district with many residents born outside the United States, Ros-Lehtinen criticized restrictive immigration legislation. In the run-up to the 1994 elections, when the Republican Party took control of the U.S. House for the first time in 40 years to open the 104th Congress (1995–1997), she refused to sign Georgia Representative Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” describing it as “unfriendly” to immigrants and the poor.30 In 1996 she and Florida GOP colleague Lincoln Diaz-Balart voted against a welfare overhaul bill—the only two Republican Members to dissent—because of what they called its “anti-immigrant sentiment.”31 “I came here without knowing a word of English,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “That I’m now a member of Congress says a lot more about the United States of America than it does about me. This really is the land of opportunity.”32
As a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), Ros-Lehtinen worked across the aisle on immigration measures.33 But when the CHC elected as chair a Democrat who had traveled to Cuba and met with Fidel Castro, Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart—both Cuban refugees and the only Republicans in the CHC—promptly resigned from the caucus. “One of the primary reasons we got to Congress was to be the voice for Cubans who are not free, and so we quit in protest, and that was a shame,” Ros-Lehtinen lamented.34 The Florida Representatives, along with other Republican Members, established the Congressional Hispanic Conference as an alternative to the caucus in 2003.35
The wife of a Vietnam veteran and stepmother to children in the Armed Forces, Ros-Lehtinen defended the nation’s military and sought to bolster veteran’s health care and educational opportunities for veterans.36 Her district also had a sizable LGBTQ population, and she advocated for equal rights and marriage equality.37 Ros-Lehtinen’s passionate support for LGBTQ rights was also personal. She and her husband devotedly supported their transgender son, Rodrigo, making public appeals to parents to accept and support transgender children.38
During her political career Ros-Lehtinen achieved many historic firsts and routinely broke gender barriers. One such milestone involved a long-standing institutional tradition—the Congressional Baseball Game, which, for decades had been played exclusively by men. In 1993 Ros-Lehtinen joined Blanche Lambert of Arkansas and Maria Cantwell of Washington to become the first Congresswomen to play in the annual event.39 She recalled how she jumped at the chance to participate despite not possessing the skills of a “power slugger.”40 Ros-Lehtinen later played in the Congressional Softball Game, an annual match between women lawmakers and women reporters established in 2009. “It’s just a great time to bond with other women,” she said.41
Ros-Lehtinen embraced her role as a trailblazer for women in her district and across the nation. “I always felt a great sense of obligation that I was representing not just the Cuban-American community, but women as well, and Latina women especially. I’ve always felt that burden, that responsibility, and that privilege, to be a voice greater than myself.”42 A vocal supporter of initiatives to prevent domestic abuse, she cosponsored the Violence Against Women Act of 2005. “There is just no question that imposing stiffer penalties—including civil ones—for violence against women was necessary to help keep more women safe,” Ros-Lehtinen explained. “Women have made great strides, but, in parts of our country, they face higher incidences of violence and abuse than in others. That’s just unacceptable.”43
Ros-Lehtinen also paved the way for Congress to recognize the accomplishments of America’s first wartime women aviators. In 2009 she drafted legislation and helped secure the passage of legislation honoring World War II WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) with the Congressional Gold Medal.44
In 2017 Ros-Lehtinen, by then the dean of the Florida delegation, announced her retirement from Congress. “We must recall that ‘to everything there is a season, and time to every purpose under the heaven,’” Ros-Lehtinen explained. “The most difficult challenge is not to simply keep winning elections; but rather the more difficult challenge is to not let the ability to win define my seasons.”45 After leaving the House at the end of the 115th Congress in January 2019, Ros-Lehtinen returned to Florida where she lives with her husband. In retirement, she writes a column for the Miami Herald and works as a senior advisor for a major lobbying firm.
1“The Honorable Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (16 April 2018): 32. The interview transcript is available online.
2Christina Wilkie, “Rep. Ros-Lehtinen Mourns the Death of Her Mother,” 28 January 2011, The Hill: n.p.
3“Ros-Lehtinen Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 1.
4“Ros-Lehtinen Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 2–3; “Biography,” official website of Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, 16 December 2011, https://web.archive.org/web/20111228080952/http://ros-lehtinen.house.gov/about-me/full-biography.
5“Ros-Lehtinen Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 5.
6“Biography,” 16 December 2011; “Who Is Ileana Ros-Lehtinen?,” official website of the U.S. House of Representatives, accessed 24 September 2002, http://www.house.gov/ros-lehtinen/biography.htm (site discontinued).
7“Ros-Lehtinen Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 7.
8Politics in America, 1992 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1991): 341; “First Cuban-American Elected to Congress,” 30 August 1989, New York Times: A15.
9Jeffrey Schmalz, “Cuban Émigré Wins Election to U.S. House,” 31 August 1989, New York Times: A16; Luis Feldstein Soto, “The Day Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Was Elected to Congress,” 30 April 2017, Miami Herald: n.p.
10“Ros-Lehtinen Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 8.
11“Ros-Lehtinen Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 23–24.
12Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”
13Marc Caputo, “Florida’s Ros-Lehtinen to Retire from Congress,” 30 April 2017, Politico: n.p.; “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”
14Politics in America, 2012 (Washington, DC: CQ-Roll Call, Inc., 2011): 263; Politics in America, 2002 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2001): 252; Politics in America, 1996 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1995): 320.
15“Ros-Lehtinen Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 7; Michael Putney, “Political Heavyweight Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Is No Ordinary Politician,” 2 May 2017, Miami Herald: n.p.
16Matt S. Meier, Notable Latino Americans: A Biographical Dictionary (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997): 340; “Who Is Ileana Ros-Lehtinen?”
17Politics in America, 2004 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2003): 243; Politics in America, 2012: 245.
18Politics in America, 2012: 246.
19Politics in America, 2012: 246; Derek Willis, “Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,” 28 December 2002, CQ Weekly: 59.
20Lesley Clark, “Ros-Lehtinen Aims for Powerful Post,” 23 September 2005, Miami Herald: A1.
21“Committee Assignments,” official website of Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, 23 November 2018, https://web.archive.org/web/20181108075441/https://ros-lehtinen.house.gov/about-me/committees-and-caucuses; “Ros-Lehtinen Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 31–32.
23“Ros-Lehtinen Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 24.
24“Ros-Lehtinen Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 32.
25Almanac of American Politics, 2016 (Arlington, VA: Columbia Books & Information Services, 2015): 501.
26Lesley Clark, “Ros-Lehtinen’s Role Could Grow in the House,” 28 October 2010, Miami Herald: B4.
27“Biography,” official website of Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, 20 March 2010, https://web.archive.org/web/20100320094855/http://ros-lehtinen.house.gov/SinglePages/SinglePage.aspx?NewsID=6; “Who Is Ileana Ros-Lehtinen?”
28David Smiley, “The Life and Times of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,” 30 April 2017, Miami Herald: n.p.
29Patricia Mazzei, “Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to Retire from Congress,” 30 April 2017, Miami Herald: n.p.
30“Ros-Lehtinen Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 36.
31Willis, “Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.”
32Stephen Goode, “Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Is Proud to Be American,” 22 February 1999, Insight: n.p.
33“Issue of Cuba Divides Congressional Hispanic Caucus,” 9 February 1997, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: 14D.
34“Ros-Lehtinen Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 28; “Diaz-Balart, Ros-Lehtinen Pull Out of Hispanic Caucus,” 9 January 1997, Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL): 3A.
35Sergio Bustos, “Bitter Debate Over Nominee Spawns New Hispanic Congressional Group,” 19 March 2003, Gannett News Service; Suzanne Gamboa, “GOP Hispanics Form Congressional Group,” 18 March 2003, Associated Press.
36“Biography,” 28 December 2011.
37Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 501.
38“Why I’m Retiring from Congress,” 30 April 2017, Miami Herald: n.p.; Smiley, “The Life and Times of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen”; “Ros-Lehtinen Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 39–40.
39Jason Dick, “#tbt: When the Congressional Baseball Game Broke the Gender Barrier,” 11 June 2015, Roll Call: n.p.
40Robin Opsahl, “Women Hit 25th Anniversary Playing in Congressional Baseball Game,” 14 June 2018, Roll Call: n.p.
41“Ros-Lehtinen Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 18; Alex Daugherty, “Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Debbie Wasserman Schultz Take on the Media—in Softball,” 22 June 2017, Miami Herald: n.p.
42“Ros-Lehtinen Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 24.
43“In Her Footsteps: A Profile on Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,” United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, 17 April 2018, https://ushcc.com/in-her-footsteps-a-profile-on-congresswoman-ileana-ros-lehtinen/.
44“Biography,” 28 December 2011; Congressional Record, House, 111th Cong., 1st sess. (16 June 2009): 15266–15267.
45Smiley, “The Life and Times of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.”
Fernández, Mayra. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lawmaker (Beginning Biographies). Cleveland: Modern Curriculum Press, 1994.
"Ileana Ros-Lehtinen" in Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822-2012. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of the Historian and the Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2013.
"Ileana Ros-Lehtinen" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.
Ros-Lehtinen, Ileana. Current Human Rights Situation in Africa. Upland, Pa.: Diane Pub Company, 1996.
___. "Opinions of Members of the United States House of Representatives Regarding National Tests for 9th through 12 Grade Students." Ed. D. Diss., University of Miami, 2004.
The Honorable Ileana Ros-Lehtinen recalls how she learned she made history as the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress.