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
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 »
‘PRESUMPTIVE NOMINEE’
Priebus Asks Party to Unite Behind Trump
2 hours ago
THE LATEST
FEELING THE MIDWESTERN BERN
Sanders Upsets Clinton in Indiana
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

Despite trailing Hillary Clinton by a significant margin, Bernie Sanders wasn't going the way of Ted Cruz tonight. The Vermont senator upset Clinton in Indiana, with MSNBC calling the race at 9pm. Sanders appears poised to win by a five- or six-point spread.

Source:
TRUMP IS PRESUMPTIVE NOMINEE
Ted Cruz Bows Out, Effectively Ceding the Contest to Trump
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

And just like that, it's over. Ted Cruz will suspend his presidential campaign after losing badly to Donald Trump in Indiana tonight. "While Cruz had always hedged when asked whether he would quit if he lost Indiana; his campaign had laid a huge bet on the state." John Kasich's campaign has pledged to carry on. “From the beginning, I’ve said that I would continue on as long as there was a viable path to victory,” said Cruz. “Tonight, I’m sorry to say it appears that path has been foreclosed."

Source:
TAKES AT LEAST 45 DELEGATES
Trump Wins Indiana, All but Seals the Nomination
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

The Republican establishment's last remaining hope—a contested convention this summer—may have just ended in Indiana, as Donald Trump won a decisive victory over Ted Cruz. Nothing Cruz seemed to have in his corner seemed to help—not a presumptive VP pick in Carly Fiorina, not a midwestern state where he's done well in the past, and not the state's legions of conservatives. Though Trump "won't secure the 1,237 delegates he needs to formally claim the nomination until June, his Indiana triumph makes it almost impossible to stop him. Following his decisive wins in New York and other East Coast states, the Indiana victory could put Trump within 200 delegates of the magic number he needs to clinch the nomination." Cruz, meanwhile, "now faces the agonizing choice of whether to remain in the race, with his attempt to force the party into a contested convention in tatters, or to bow out and cede the party nomination to his political nemesis." The Associated Press, which called the race at 7pm, predicts Trump will win at least 45 delegates.

Source:
LOTS OF STRINGERS
Inside the AP’s Election Operation
8 hours ago
WHY WE CARE
×