There are a lot of firsts in the life of the exuberant Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. The first Republican woman elected to the House of Representatives from Florida. The first Cuban-American to join that august body, and currently the most senior Republican woman in it. In January, she set another record and became one of the most powerful members of the new Congress—the first Hispanic to chair the prestigious and largely male-dominated Foreign Affairs Committee.
As soon as she assumed the position, the no-nonsense, 58-year-old conservative legislator announced her agenda—she would face down rogue regimes, review foreign policy including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, press for tougher sanctions against Iran and North Korea and slash foreign aid and funds for the United Nations. She also emphatically restated her unrelenting anti-Castro, pro-Israel stance, and supported cutting off aid to the Palestinian National Authority until she’s satisfied that they truly endorse the peace process and are willing to ensure the security of Israel. She is so determined that she recently condemned the Palestine Liberation Organization when they unfurled a flag over the new Palestinian embassy in Washington, D.C. “ I don’t think they should have the trappings of statehood before they have earned it,” she says.
She is also a longtime backer of gay and lesbian rights, the only Republican member of the LGBT Congressional Caucus, and one of the few Republicans who voted to repeal the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. (One of her children is a gay-rights activist.)
Over the years, she has created such a furor and become such a thorn in the side of Fidel Castro—once calling for his assassination—that he has dubbed her, lobo feroz (big bad wolf). Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez was quick to chime in, dismissing her as a “bandit.” “I love the names they call me,”’ she says with a throaty laugh. “I even put lobo feroz on my license plates for a while, but took them off when people began to realize it was me.”
“I’m a down-home legislator…I don’t know any think-tank folks, I don’t know any fancy folks, I don’t know any pundits. I know my staff and I know my office and my constituents. No Potomac fever for me.”
When you meet Ros-Lehtinen in her new office, with its stunning view of the Capitol, and she settles into an easy chair casually propping up her legs on a coffee table, offering a cup of high-test Cuban coffee, you are not sure what to expect, but are quickly disarmed. As the steaming brew arrives in dainty blue-and-white demitasse cups, she instructs, ”Just have a sip. Only one, or you won’t sleep all night.” Reluctantly, you follow her advice and put down the cup. Even though we are talking at the height of the Egyptian crisis and she is preparing to issue a statement on Hosni Mubarak’s departure that expresses concern about the Muslim Brotherhood, you quickly realize that you are interviewing an irrepressible figure—an effusive Jewish/Cuban mother who loves to laugh and joke and, who over 20 years in the political trenches has learned how win friends and influence people. And perhaps most important, to deflect criticism and mollify opponents with politesse and wit.
“Ileana is charming, she doesn’t have a rough edge,” says Donna Shalala, president of the University of Miami, and former secretary of health and human services in the Clinton administration. “She is smart, understands the issues and knows how to build bridges. You won’t find anyone criticizing her. She reaches out to Democrats and reflects her constituency very, very well.”
She is known as Ily throughout her district of Dade County, Florida, which encompasses the diverse communities of Miami and the Keys, home to large Jewish, gay, and Hispanic populations, as well as the largest group of Holocaust survivors in the nation. She has won her last two elections in a walk, with more that 60 percent of the vote. In PAC donations for the House she ranks first in contributions from human-rights groups and third with pro-Israel lobbyists.
‘With Ily, what you see is what you get,” says longtime friend, Miami lawyer Mikki Canton.” She’s one of the very few able to navigate the tough and tangled politics of South Florida and is beloved by both sides of the aisle.”
For Democratic colleague Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, Ros-Lehtinen is “a passionate whirlwind, unusually well-schooled in foreign policy.” He adds, “I respect her tenacity and engagement. She’ll be fair. If you have to have a Republican at the head of the committee, she’s the best.”’
So, you ask, in this age of rancor and incivility, why does this outspoken exile from Havana receive so much praise and so many plaudits across party lines? ”I’ve been around a long time, and this is not a good incumbent atmosphere,” she responds. “I know what’s going on in my district, I come home every weekend, I attend to everything, the problems that are going on, I meet with all the city mayors, commissioners, those are the people who elect you, so I don’t get caught up with the Potomac fever. “ She says she avoids embassy dinners and the social whirl, even though she gets invited to some very swanky events. She prefers to spend her time going through mail and signing letters. “To me that’s heaven. I’m a down-home legislator, and I don’t know any important people here, I don’t know any think-tank folks, I don’t know any fancy folks, I don’t know any pundits, I don’t know anybody. I know my staff and I know my office and my constituents, so I don’t rub elbows with anybody important. No Potomac fever for me.”
The down-home attitude, and her revulsion to Castro, date back to her childhood—she fled Cuba with her parents at age 7. (She still guards the unused return portion of her Pan Am airline ticket.) Her family settled in Miami, where, in order to survive, her mother—who is of Jewish heritage—served pastries in a tearoom at a hotel and her father established a laundry route. Eventually, the family prospered and Ileana went onto earn a Ph.D. in higher education at the University of Miami, married, and served in the Florida legislature. But her hatred for the Castro regime is visceral and personal—there will be no rapprochement or lifting of the embargo on her watch. She explains: “People always say ‘we’ve had the embargo for 50 years and we’re not any closer to freedom,’ but we’ve had many other things that have not brought us closer to freedom, either. So what has to change is not the U.S. policy to Cuba, it’s Cuban policy toward the Cubans, and there’s no tyranny that’s going to last forever. But what happened in Egypt could not happen in Cuba, because it’s a police totalitarian state. We would be rounded up and thrown in jail in a very quiet way, or else they would get to our families. And the press isn’t going to report anything because they’re going to get kicked out if they try. The fact that Cuba is an island is really to Castro’s benefit, because he can really control everything.”
On Israel she is equally firm. She supports the principle of two independent states—Israel and Palestine—but says: “We’ve got to eliminate all these preconditions and have them sit down and hammer out the talks, and I think Israel would welcome it. Israel is part of the solution, they want peace—and so do the Palestinians. It’s not either/or. But there are a lot of other folks agitating on the sidelines, who don’t want it to happen.”
To help settle the matter she believes, “Palestinians have to renounce violence, they have to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a state, and you know, they just don’t’ fulfill any of those requirements according to U.S. law, and yet they still receive the money. So they can’t, it’s putting the cart before the horse. We have to provide incentives to do the right things. The Palestine Authority needs a bailout from the U.S. They need our money. Let’s make them work towards peace. Just like we make Israel. We push Israel all the time.” On Thursday, when reports circulated that the U.S. had offered to criticize Israel in the U.N. Security Council over the issue of settlements, she blasted back, calling any such statement “unacceptable.” She asserted that, “Support for this anti-Israel statement is a major concession to enemies of the Jewish State and other free democracies. It telegraphs that the U.S. can be bullied into abandoning critical democratic allies and core U.S. principles.”
Some Democrats fear that the feisty new chairwoman will unleash a barrage of hearings and investigations into the Obama administration’s foreign policy —“Don’t underestimate her,” warns a well-placed Democrat. But she says her primary aim is to foster bipartisanship and collegiality on the committee and to expand civil societies and human rights around the globe. An example: last January she skipped a White House state dinner in honor of Chinese President Hu Jintao, but confronted him at a congressional reception the next day to list her grave concerns over China’s poor human rights record and to criticize its economic policies. She also has met with various ambassadors, including the envoy from Pakistan, urging them to do more to root out extremists and terrorists, and is constantly encouraging her confreres—and all Americans—to strive for better relations with democratic neighbors and to help the world’s repressed and disenfranchised.
And those who disagree with her? “Oh, I have plenty,” she says nonchalantly, shrugging and waving her arms. “Most of them are in my family. I’m just making a joke. Look, there’s room for many, many voices and many points of view and I’m fine. I’m an old broad, so I don’t have a heart attack over that.”
Sandra McElwaine is a Washington Correspondent for The Daily Beast. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People, and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. She has also written for The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.