Magazine article The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

Latina Congresswoman: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Can't Be Stereotyped on Issues

Magazine article The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

Latina Congresswoman: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Can't Be Stereotyped on Issues

Article excerpt

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was the first Latina ever to be elected to Congress in the history of the United States. But she didn't know it at the time. TV anchor Katie Couric told her the news, when in 1988 she first took the oath of office.

"I was surprised to hear about it," said the 60-something congresswoman as we scurried down the long corridor next to the subway going from the Rayburn office building to the House side of the Capitol. Obviously it was not the main reason the former Florida state Assemblywoman and Senator had for running. The mother of four, who was born in Cuba, was in her mid- 30s when elected, married to a politician who was also in the state legislature like her, and working on her doctorate in education from the University of Miami. She had many interests when she ran for congresswoman of Florida's 27th District - a position she has held now for 13 terms.

For starters she is passionate about education - including strengthening the Head Start program and revising the FAFSA college application financial aid process. She earned her doctorate while in Congress, taking almost 17 years from the time she entered Miami Dade Community College ("the largest in the country," she said proudly) to finishing her thesis - an exploration of congressional attitudes about educational testing. "My survey was the only one ever to get a 100 percent response from members of Congress. I know because I did it personally," she grinned as we ran up two flights of marble stairs to the elegant office of the House Rules Committee.

She also is intensely interested in international policy. In 2011, she earned another first when she became the first woman (and Latina if you must) chairperson of the prestigious House Committee on Foreign Affairs. She continues to serve on it, pressing the fight against Islamist extremism and strongly supporting the president's initiatives on free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. She is adamant about maintaining the embargo against Cuba and the U.S.'s strong support of Israel.

She also is a player in women's issues in Congress. She was the lead sponsor of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and authored legislation to award Congressional Gold Medals to the WASP (Women Air Force Service Pilots) of World War II. She supports legislation to increase criminal penalties for perpetrators of Medicare fraud.

Immigration is not her big issue - although she is sympathetic to the plight of DREAMers and voted this summer to extend DACA another two years.

Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen is the model of the Latina who can't be stereotyped: a strong passionate conservative and a rising Republican leader. In fact, she was appointed by the Republican House leadership to serve on the powerful Committee on Rules. Its members decide what legislation makes it to the House floor and who is chosen for House leader.

It also might surprise some to learn that the congresswoman considers her fellow congressional colleague from Florida and often sharp-tongued Chair of the Democratic Committee, Debbie WassermanSchultz, to be a "non-adversarial" colleague. "We talk about everything from personal and family issues to legislation; and I play on the congressional women's baseball team that Debbie captains," she said as we downed glasses of ice water in the committee's elegant office. Then she went next door to the hearing room for a vote. "Debbie and I don't agree lots of times, but we have one deep bond," she continued when she returned a few minutes later. "We're both Gators! …

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