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Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Championing rights – from a right-wing perspective

By Karen-Janine Cohen

STORY TOOLS

South Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, in office since 1989, gained a new cheering section in September when she became the first House Republican to sign on as co-sponsor of a measure that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, the mid-90s legislation that defines marriage as between and man and a woman, which Ros-Lehtinen originally supported.

It’s not the first time the congresswoman, the first Cuban-American and the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress, has bucked her party’s usual stance on gay rights issues. In the last few years she has, among other things, called on the State Department to give same sex partners similar benefits enjoyed by other couples, and signed on early to repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the military—a policy now ended.

“I think it’s a question of fairness and justice and equality,” Ros-Lehtinen says in a phone interview. “I think our nation is moving in that direction with the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ ” (which cleared the way for gay Americans to serve openly in the armed forces). “Some people thought the world would stop turning,” she says, addressing the military service issue.

Her stance, while upsetting some conservative groups, comes as no surprise to many in the South Florida lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, says Mimi Planas, co-director of the Miami chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group that represents the interests of lesbian and gay Americans, while also maintaining a Republican identity. Planas notes that the congresswoman was a founding member of the congressional LGBT Equality Caucus.

The lawmaker’s decision to co-sponsor the Respect for Marriage Act, the bill that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, should resonate with her congressional GOP colleagues, Planas notes. “It will influence other Republicans.” Ros-Lehtinen’s move comes at a time when same-sex marriage is gaining ground. In June, New York became the sixth state to recognize gay marriage and the push is on to jettison the federal law.

It has been widely reported that Rodrigo, one of Ros-Lehtinen’s children, was born as Amanda but began living with a male identity in college, where he also gained attention in 2009 by supporting anti-Zionist activities and signing a letter that called for stopping the flow of U.S. tax dollars to Israel—a stance very much at odds with that of his mother. Rodrigo, who made a documentary about Cuban dissidents, is now working in Los Angeles as a field organizer for the transgender community.

Ros-Lehtinen was nuanced when asked if her family influenced her decision to back repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. “I think all of us are impacted by the views and opinions of our family members,” she says. “I listen to my dad, I listen to my husband, I listen to my kids, everybody who has an opinion. Opinions evolve—it’s a good thing in life we never stop learning.”

THE FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Still, while Ros-Lehtinen may have softened on some social issues, it’s a different story when it comes to chairing the Foreign Affairs Committee. To wit: In August, she introduced a measure that would allow the United States and other countries to choose which United Nations agencies to bankroll, and cut off U.S. funding to the U.N. Human Rights Council, which many accuse of both an anti-democratic and anti-Israel bias.

The committee sent the measure to the full House for a vote, but is not likely to get a warm reception by the Obama administration. Still, her staunch support of Israel has won her loyal friends in South Florida’s Jewish community.

She is often mentioned as a possible future secretary of State under a Republican administration Yet some wonder if her views may undermine her in the foreign policy community. In October, Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer wrote that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon contends that the Human Rights Council is playing a positive role when it comes to holding Libya and Syria to account for how they treat their people (the congresswoman has also held hearings focused on putting pressure on Syria, where pro-democracy protestors have been brutally repressed).

Meanwhile a number of independent groups argue that the U.S. could better encourage reform by working within the U.N. system. Ros-Lehtinen also wants to keep up pressure on Iran, holding a number of committee hearings focused on U.S. sanctions, and introducing legislation aimed at countering ways that Iran has found to skirt efforts to monitor its nuclear program, and potential for weapons development.

Still, the heart of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s local support remains her fierce opposition to normalization of ties with Cuba—unless and until the country makes real pro-democracy strides. Born in Havana in 1952, Ros-Lehtinen and her family fled the Castro regime when she was 8 years old. The congresswoman graduated from Miami-Dade College in 1972 with an associate’s degree.

She later earned a bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in education. She has been married for more than 26 years to former U.S. attorney, Florida representative and state senator Dexter Lehtinen, now a partner with the Tew Cardenas law firm. The congresswoman enjoys constituent loyalty other lawmakers can only dream of, cruising to victory in 2010 with more than 60 percent of the vote. “She is very loved in this community,” says Planas, who happens to also be a Cuban-American and who lives in Ros-Lehtinen’s district.

The congresswoman, she says, understands the exile experience and what people have endured under the Castro regime. And that continues to resonate with voters. “From the older generation to the younger generation, we are crazy about her.” And, having a strong gay presence among her constituents makes taking a bold stand easier, notes Nilda Pedrosa, who was former Republican Sen. Mel Martinez’s chief of staff and who is now vice dean at FIU’s law school.

“She knows her community, she knows her constituency and she’s a really hard worker.”

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