Ileana Ros-Lehtinen racked up a lot of firsts during her 30-year tenure in Congress, landing her safely on the list of this decade’s most influential Florida politicians.
The South Florida Republican served from 1989 until 2019. By the end of her time in the U.S. House of Representatives, Ros-Lehtinen was the most senior U.S. Representative from Florida.
Her firsts began early. Ros-Lehtinen became the first Cuban American and the first Republican woman elected to Congress.
But her power-hitting and game-changing years came this decade. In 2011, Ros-Lehtinen co-sponsored the Respect for Marriage Act to repeal the anti-same-sex marriage Defense of Marriage Act, of which she had initially voted in favor. She was the first in her party to add her name to the legislation.
The next year she became the first Republican in the House to come out publicly in support of same-sex marriage. She also co-founded the House LBGT Equality Caucus.
Ros-Lehtinen’s shift in support of same-sex marriage came in part because her district included a robust LGBTQ community but also because her son came out as transgender. Ros-Lehtinen publicly supported her son, noting that love for a child transcends social or political views. She also likened LGBTQ discrimination to the communist policies many Cubans in her district escaped.
Ros-Lehtinen was also the first Republican to deliver a response to the State of the Union Address in Spanish in 2011. She gave the third Spanish Republican response again in 2014. Delivering a response to a Democratic President’s address in Spanish represented a tide shift, or at least an acknowledgment that the party needed to expand its tent to conservative members of the Hispanic and Latin communities.
Ros-Lehtinen announced she would not seek reelection in 2017 and left Congress in early 2019 when her final term ended. That was not an end to Ros-Lehtinen’s political influence, however.
Since leaving office, Ros-Lehtinen has worked as a lobbyist for the firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, where she serves as a senior adviser on public law and policy in Washington.