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No. 24 on the list of Florida Politicians of the Decade: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Ros-Lehtinen has racked up a lot of firsts.

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. 

“From serving as the first Latina ever elected to the United States Congress or as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana never lost sight of the community that welcomed her as a young refugee. Like her father Enrique, she valued history and was always ready to help mentor and inspire future generations. From business leaders and media personalities to U.S. Senators, the Ros-Lehtinen Alumni list reads like that of a fancy Ivy League school,” said Republican strategist Chris Miles. “Whether it was helping a constituent with a federal issue or passing sanctions against murderous regimes, Ileana approached all of these challenges with the same tenacity that defined our exile community of Miami. The consummate happy warrior, Ileana could go toe to toe with tyrants and walk hand and hand with our viejitos always ready to share a joke, and if you were lucky enough, a cup of cafecito followed by a signed photo con cariños in the mail.”

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.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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