Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: How I Learned to Love My Firstness

Being first comes with extra scrutiny and responsibility; people watch your work, your actions, and your words.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. 
©2012 Richard A. Bloom
Ileana Ros Lehtinen
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
July 25, 2014, 1 a.m.

After win­ning a hard-fought spe­cial elec­tion in 1989 to fill the seat of South Flor­ida’s le­gendary Rep. Claude Pep­per, I went on the Today show for my first in­ter­view as a mem­ber-elect. I was taken aback when I was asked how it felt to be the first His­pan­ic wo­man elec­ted to Con­gress. “I don’t think that is cor­rect,” I said, “but I’m glad to have won.” Katie Cour­ic in­ter­rup­ted and said, “Oh, trust me, we did the re­search, and you are in­deed the first Lat­ina in Con­gress.” Well, OK. No pres­sure, right?

(Richard A. Bloom)

When I ar­rived in the United States at age 8 from my nat­ive Cuba, I would have looked at you like you were from Mars if you’d told me that I would someday serve in Con­gress. While my par­ents, En­rique and Aman­da, set off to work, my chal­lenge was to learn Eng­lish. I learned and nev­er stopped learn­ing, even­tu­ally be­com­ing a teach­er and run­ning a small private school. (Was I the first His­pan­ic wo­man in Miami-Dade to own a school? You’d have to ask Katie Cour­ic.)

Like many wo­men — and surely a few men — my in­terest in polit­ics came from think­ing bey­ond my­self. My stu­dents’ fam­ily mem­bers would come to me with their is­sues and con­cerns re­gard­ing any­thing from ques­tions about im­mig­ra­tion to how to nav­ig­ate the myri­ad of gov­ern­ment agen­cies and pro­grams. I wanted to help my com­munity on a lar­ger scale, so I ran for state House and be­came Flor­ida’s first His­pan­ic wo­man in that cham­ber and, later, the first in the state Sen­ate.

Like so many wo­men who’ve broken pro­fes­sion­al bar­ri­ers, I’ve had to learn to em­brace my “first­ness.” Be­ing first comes with ex­tra scru­tiny and re­spons­ib­il­ity; people watch your work, your ac­tions, and your words. You’re ex­pec­ted to rep­res­ent those who’ve paved the way for your first­ness, and to set an ex­ample for those who will come after you.

After ar­riv­ing in Wash­ing­ton, I had plenty of at­ten­tion on my every move. My first task was to per­suade my col­leagues to grant me a seat on the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee. I knew from day one that the com­mit­tee was where I needed to be be­cause in my dis­trict, with its large Cuban-Amer­ic­an and Jew­ish con­stitu­en­cies, for­eign af­fairs are a do­mest­ic top­ic. I wasn’t shy; I told lead­er­ship and my South Flor­ida col­leagues that ob­tain­ing that seat was my first pri­or­ity in D.C. — which I did. Years later, in one of my proudest mo­ments as a pub­lic ser­vant, I be­came chair­wo­man of the House Com­mit­tee on For­eign Af­fairs.

My philo­sophy to­ward suc­ceed­ing as a His­pan­ic wo­man boils down to something quite simple that would serve oth­er wo­men well: Do everything like you’re the first, even when you’re not. I keep striv­ing for ex­cel­lence and work­ing just as hard every day as I did when I was a new mem­ber. In my case, that means fight­ing for South Flor­ida — work­ing to pre­serve the beau­ti­ful Flor­ida Keys and help small busi­nesses, for in­stance, while cham­pi­on­ing glob­al hu­man rights. My fo­cus on hu­man rights glob­ally was born from wit­ness­ing a re­press­ive Cuban re­gime take con­trol and op­press the people, while my in­terest in the plight of Is­rael came from my be­lief that we must stand with de­fend­ers of demo­cracy who are un­der siege.

As I liked to say from the start of my time in Con­gress, I’m proud to have been the first, but I am happy that I won’t be the last. Through the years, it’s be­come a won­der­ful priv­ilege for me to see more His­pan­ic wo­men join the ranks of Con­gress, and to help them nav­ig­ate the per­ils of Wash­ing­ton. Too of­ten we view polit­ics as a full-con­tact, zero-sum game. We should en­cour­age the op­pos­ite. No one achieves on her own, and it’s up to us — the firsts, and the nexts — to in­spire fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

Ileana Ros-Le­htin­en rep­res­ents Flor­ida’s 27th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict in the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives.

What We're Following See More »
WOULD CUT NON-DEFENSE BY SAME AMOUNT
Trump Budget Would Bump Defense Spending by $54 Billion
5 minutes ago
THE DETAILS

"The Trump administration is proposing a budget it says will increase defense spending by $54 billion and cut non-defense spending by the same amount. The White House is sending a topline budget proposal reflecting those figures to federal agencies on Monday afternoon, according to an Office of Management and Budget official." An unnamed OMB official said most federal agencies would face cutbacks.

Source:
WILL THE DINNER HAPPEN?
Trump To Skip Correspondents Dinner
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Donald Trump announced in a tweet on Saturday that he would not attend the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in April. The move did not come as a surprise, another moment in his ongoing battle with the media, which he has dubbed the "enemy" of the American people and repeatedly refers to as "fake news." Multiple outlets have already cancelled their events surrounding the dinner and several are considering skipping the event outright.

FOLLOWS ARMY SECRETARY
Navy Secretary Nominee To Withdraw
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Phillip Bilden, Donald Trump's nominee for Navy secretary, has decided to withdraw his nomination after he was unable to sufficiently untangle his financial commitments. Bilden follows Vincent Viola, who withdrew his nomination for Army secretary.

Source:
FBI TURNED DOWN REQUEST
Report: Trump Asked FBI to Deny Russia Stories
3 days ago
THE LATEST

"The FBI rejected a recent White House request to publicly knock down media reports about communications between Donald Trump's associates and Russians known to US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign, multiple US officials briefed on the matter tell CNN. But a White House official said late Thursday that the request was only made after the FBI indicated to the White House it did not believe the reporting to be accurate."

Source:
THE QUESTION
How Many Signatures Has the Petition for Trump’s Tax Returns Received?
4 days ago
THE ANSWER

More than 1 million, setting a record. More than 100,000 signatures triggers an official White House response.

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login