Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R)
Florida 18th District
A century ago, it was a tiny tropical village where the Miami River empties into Biscayne Bay. Today it is a world-class city. The surrealistic high-rises of Brickell Boulevard, the reminders of the 1920s in the pseudo-Spanish Villa Vizcaya, the winding lanes of Coral Gables, and the shimmer of orange and pink neon signs in the hot night air: This is Miami today. It lives on the cusp of two civilizations, North America and Latin America, with different traditions, styles, and sensibilities converging in this one place, with the strength of both despite some friction. Miami is in many ways the commercial and economic capital of Latin America. From Miami, it is easy to fly directly to any part of Latin America where top business and banking services are available to a sophisticated Spanish-speaking (and usually also English-speaking) clientele. There is an underside to this, portrayed in the 1980s TV program Miami Vice. What is striking about Miami though is less its vices than its virtues—the vitality and creativity of its entrepreneurs and artists, the sophistication of people living and prospering in two (or more) cultures, and the successful Americanization of Cubans and other Latinos, with the retention of a cultural flavor that is linked to the past but headed fast into the future. In 2006, a movie version of Miami Vice depicted a more modern and glitzy city.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
John Quincy Adams believed that Cuba would inevitably become a part of the United States. That never happened, but many of Cuba’s people have become U.S. citizens, and the focus of Cuban America has been Miami, ever since the first refugees fled Fidel Castro in 1959. In the 1960s, the tone of Miami civic life was set by the large Jewish community and the liberal voice of the Miami Herald. But increasing numbers of Cuban immigrants, implacably opposed to the totalitarian Castro, and estranged by President Kennedy’s betrayal of their cause at the Bay of Pigs, entered the voting stream as Republicans. Then, Cubans were a noisy minority in the Miami area. Now, they are a dominant voice in a Latino majority in Miami-Dade County (as Dade County was renamed in 1997). In 2007, the population of Miami-Dade was 61% Hispanic and 20% black, leaving Anglo whites a fading minority. The city has the highest percentage of immigrants of any large city in the world. Most of South Florida’s Jewish community has moved north to Broward and Palm Beach counties. Little Havana around Calle Ocho (S.W. 8th Street in English) is now home to many Nicaraguans, Hondurans and Peruvians. Its annual spring carnival has featured the world’s largest paella (serving 300,000 people) and the longest conga line (four miles). Latinos in Miami-Dade tend to go to school at Miami Dade College, the nation’s largest community college, or Florida International University, then start businesses or join the professions in Miami’s vibrant economy.
Politically, Miami-Dade County is sharply divided, with black neighborhoods north of downtown and the remaining heavily Jewish condominium developments in the northeast heavily Democratic, and the Latino districts in the west and south mostly Republican. Once the most Democratic county in Florida, it delivered relatively small margins for Democratic presidential candidates in the last five elections. Cuban-Americans remain Republican, but less monolithically than in the past. Younger Cubans are less focused on overthrowing the Castro regime, and many opposed the Bush administration’s restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba while still favoring the embargo.
The 18th Congressional District of Florida is one of Miami-Dade’s three Hispanic-majority districts. It is 65% Hispanic and only 5% African-American. The district includes most of the city of Miami. It follows Calle Ocho west to heavily Hispanic West Miami and Westchester. It includes most of metro Miami’s high-income residential areas: Coral Gables, with luxurious streets laid out in the 1920s and Spanish, French-country, and even Chinese-style houses; Cocoplum, a gated community with huge houses for rich Cuban-Americans and docks for their boats; the postmodern apartment buildings and upscale hotels along Brickell Boulevard; and Key Biscayne, with its high-rise apartments owned mostly by Latin American immigrants and their second-generation offspring. The district includes parts of Miami Beach: South Beach, where old art-deco hotels are home to the glitziest celebrities of North America, Latin America and Europe. It also takes in the high-rises along Collins Avenue facing the ocean, and the Latino neighborhoods around 63rd Street. Miami Beach was the focus of the Florida land boom of 1925 and the bust of 1926, and in the past few years, boom has turned to bust again. Big apartment buildings on Brickell and in downtown Miami stand mostly empty, as speculators default on mortgages. Condo values have plummeted by as much as 40%.
South of Miami, the district is connected to the Florida Keys by U.S. 1. The highway ends in bustling, tropical Key West, the southernmost city in the continental United States. Key West was long accessible only by sea, and treasures from shipwrecks along the miles of coral reefs once provided its residents the highest per capita income in the nation. Key West has attracted famous residents—Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Jimmy Buffett—and a large gay population, many living in quaint clapboard bungalows called “conch houses.” The gay communities in Key West and Miami Beach are solidly Democratic, and they wield some clout. The 18th was drawn to be a Republican district and voted twice for George W. Bush. But in 2008, it delivered a narrow majority to Barack Obama.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R)
Elected: Aug. 1989, 10th full term.
Born: July 15, 1952, Havana, Cuba .
Education: Miami-Dade Comm. Col., A.A. 1972, FL Intl. U., B.A. 1975, M.S. 1986, U. of Miami, Ed.D.. 2004.
Family: Married (Dexter); 4 children.
Elected office: FL House of Reps., 1982–86; FL Senate, 1986–89.
Professional Career: Teacher, principal & owner, Eastern Academy Elem. Schl., 1978–85.
The congresswoman from the 18th District is Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Cuban-American and the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress. She was born in Havana, came to Miami at the age of 8 not knowing English and graduated from Miami Dade Community College and Florida International University. She became a teacher, then was the owner of a private school. In 2004, she got her doctorate in education from the University of Miami. Her dissertation was on the views of House members regarding national testing for high school students. She was elected to the Florida House in 1982, at age 30, and to the state Senate in 1986. While there, she met her husband, Dexter Lehtinen, who also served in both houses of the Legislature and as U.S. attorney in Miami during the first Bush administration. In 1989, Ros-Lehtinen ran for the U.S. House in the special election after the death of Democrat Claude Pepper, one of the most enduring liberals in American politics and a staunch opponent of Castro. At that time, there were no Republicans and no Cuban-Americans representing Miami or Dade County. Democratic nominee Gerald Richman played on suspicions of Cubans and won the votes of 96% of blacks and 88% of non-Hispanic whites. Ninety percent of Hispanics, almost all of them Cuban, voted for Ros-Lehtinen. That was enough to give her a 53%-47% victory. In the years afterward, the district became more Hispanic, and she had no serious challenges until 2008. That year, the increasing number of non-Cuban Hispanics and the generational changes in attitude among Cuban-Americans provided the basis for a serious Democratic challenge.
|Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R)||140,617||(58%)||($2,838,976)|
|Annette Taddeo (D)||102,372||(42%)||($1,177,003)|
|Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (62%), 2004 (65%), 2002 (69%), 2000 (100%), 1998 (100%), 1996 (100%), 1994 (100%), 1992 (67%), 1990 (60%), 1989 (53%)
Ros-Lehtinen has a mixed voting record: moderate on cultural policy and more conservative on economic and foreign issues. When Republicans took over the House in 1995, she refused to sign the Contract with America and was a harsh critic of Republican attempts to pass English-only legislation, to cut off welfare benefits for legal immigrants—she voted against the 1996 welfare bills—and to reduce the immigration quota for relatives of U.S. citizens. In February 2007, she protested the Bush administration’s increase in the permanent-resident fee from $325 to $905, and in the 2007 debate over immigration, she pleaded with Republicans not to alienate the growing Hispanic voting bloc. She has been the chief sponsor of a bill to bar the transport of minors across state lines for abortions. The House passed it, but it died in the Senate. But she opposed the military’s ban on openly gay troops and in 2008, she opposed the Florida constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
In 2007, she became the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She strongly backed the 1996 Helms-Burton law that tightened sanctions against Castro, and she has opposed farm-state Republicans who have sought to relax the trade embargo on Cuba in effect since 1961. In February 2008, after Castro stepped down as head of state, she called for his indictment for shooting down two Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996.
Ros-Lehtinen has been a booster of Israel, winning enactment of bills to impose additional economic sanctions on Libya and Iran. In September 2007, after Israel bombed an apparent nuclear installation in Syria, reportedly constructed with help from North Korea, Ros-Lehtinen criticized the Bush administration for its “veil of secrecy” on intelligence about the raid and its willingness to reach agreements with North Korea in light of the Syrian installation. In October, she held a tense meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the subject, and threatened that Congress would not appropriate money for fuel-oil shipments to North Korea if the administration refused to disclose “critical information.” Ros-Lehtinen also supported the Israeli shelling of the Gaza strip in December 2008.
Ros-Lehtinen and the committee’s Democratic chairman, Howard Berman of California, led the House in 2008 in approving a nuclear agreement with India, but with international oversight of civilian nuclear reactors. Ros-Lehtinen has been a steady supporter of the Iraq War.
As the 2008 election approached, national Democrats thought Ros-Lehtinen and the two other Miami-area Cuban-American Republicans, brothers Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, might be vulnerable. Polls showed that President Bush was unpopular in Miami-Dade County. Younger Cuban-Americans seemed less obdurately opposed to the Castro regime than their elders and more supportive of easing travel restrictions and money transfer to Cuba. Non-Cuban Hispanics leaned Democratic, and Miami Beach and bayfront liberals were hostile to the Iraq war. Democrat Annette Taddeo, owner of the LanguageSpeak translation service, launched a challenge and financed it with $400,000 of her own money. Taddeo, who was born in Colombia to a Colombian mother, favored the embargo but wanted to ease travel restrictions and money transfers. By June 2008, Ros-Lehtinen was issuing press releases detailing her disagreements with the Bush administration. In the early fall, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee poured $1.4 million into television ads, and former presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi campaigned for Taddeo. In their one joint appearance Taddeo criticized Ros-Lehtinen for voting for the $700 billion bailout of the financial markets, but the incumbent noted that the bill had $100 million in tax breaks helpful to the district. Ros-Lehtinen spent $2.8 million, about the same as Taddeo’s $1.1 million plus the money spent by the DCCC and other anti-Republican groups.
Ros-Lehtinen won 58%-42%, even though the district voted 51%-49% for Barack Obama. (The other two districts represented by Cuban-Americans voted 51%-49% and 50%-49% for John McCain.) “This could have been the perfect storm,” she told the Miami Herald. “It had all the makings of me going down. If I can make it in this election, I can make it in any election.” Obama even called with congratulations, but Ros-Lehtinen, thinking that one of the local radio stations was pulling a prank, hung up on him. She said, “I thought, ‘Why would Obama want to call a little slug on the planet like me?’” When White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel called to explain, she hung up on him too. Then Berman called and persuaded her that the calls were genuine. When she finally took his call, Obama laughed and said he didn’t blame her for being skeptical.