MIAMI (CBS4) – Long-time Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is poised to take control of a very powerful House committee thanks to the recent Republican landslide victory in November.
Ros-Lehtinen, the first Cuban-American to serve in Congress, is next in line to head the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Ros-Lehtinen, 58, presents an increasingly rare image these days — a politician occasionally willing to work across the aisle. The legislator, who was re-elected with 69 percent of the vote, is a hawk on foreign affairs but breaks with her party on immigration, gay rights and other issues important to the people she represents — Cuban-Americans, gays, a strong Jewish community.
California Democrat Howard Berman, who will surrender the Foreign Affairs Committee chairmanship in January, cautioned those who mistake Ros-Lehtinen’s enthusiasm and pleasantness for weakness.
“People greatly underestimate her skill and tenaciousness,” he said.
Under her watch, the committee is expected to push for stepped-up sanctions against North Korea and Iran, more oversight of the U.N. and a block on any dialogue with Cuba.
As a strong abortion foe, Ros-Lehtinen also may try to chip away at the president’s executive order allowing foreign aid for international groups that provide information about abortion services.
“I think she is going to be very active on Latin America and oversight, making sure the administration is enforcing sanctions,” Berman said.
Ros-Lehtinen fled Cuba with her family at age 7. She taught elementary school, then started running her own school. She was in the Florida Legislature for six years before winning election to the U.S. House in 1989, her bid brokered by legendary Cuban-American political king-maker Jorge Mas Canosa. She completed her doctorate in education while serving in Congress.
The mother of two children and two stepchildren with her husband, former U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen, is still best known for her staunch support of the U.S embargo against the communist island.
“I welcome the opportunity of having anyone assassinate Fidel Castro,” she told an interviewer in a 2006 British documentary.
Ros-Lehtinen is outraged by Cuba’s membership on the United Nation’s Human Rights Council along with China and Saudi Arabia and would like U.S. contributions to the U.N. to be voluntary until the U.S. creates an office to audit U.N. activities for transparency and eliminate waste.
“The U.N. functions very well for Iran and Venezuela, and every two-bit dictator who’s envious and hates the United States,” she told The Associated Press. “But for countries that contribute a lot to the U.N., I don’t think people really feel like it’s really living up to the standards which we set for it at it’s founding.”
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and 2012 presidential hopeful, lauds Ros-Lehtinen for bringing a strong anti-communist and anti-dictator position to her analyses. “She will bring clarity,” he predicts.
Critics counter that she has too much of an “us versus them” mentality that doesn’t allow for gray areas when it comes to those who don’t always agree with the U.S.
“She looks more to converting,” said Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank.
“But the notion that first you convert someone and then you deal with them in the real world doesn’t seem to work,” he said. “There are lots of countries we have sharp differences with, but we accommodate those differences.”
Ros-Lehtinen is tired of groups that complain the U.S. is not doing enough abroad and is among those who have criticized Obama for publicly acknowledging the nation’s past support of friendly but undemocratic regimes.
“We have to do more with less and work in a smarter way to advance America’s interests — and that’s not advancing the world’s interest,” she said.
But she has also spoken out about human rights violations in East Timor, Tibet and Darfur and called attention to women’s rights in Afghanistan.
One place she doesn’t see the need for cuts is aid to Israel. Her support is crucial in a district that is home to one of the nation’s largest communities of Holocaust survivors. It is also personal. Ros-Lehtinen, now an Episcopalian, was raised Catholic, but her mother’s family were Jews who immigrated to Cuba from Turkey.
Although Ros-Lehtinen mostly toes the Republican line, she has bucked the party on occasion.
She’s one of only a few Republicans who voted to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring gays from serving openly.
Ros-Lehtinen receives strong ratings from environmental groups, and she opposes the new Arizona immigration law while supporting a federal proposal to allow qualified teen illegal immigrants who attend college or join the military to become U.S. citizens.
Her stances aren’t surprising in a district that includes parts of Miami’s Little Havana and the tourist-dependent and gay friendly Miami Beach and Florida Keys. Ros-Lehtinen’s eldest child is a gay rights activist.
It was that independence which helped prompt Obama’s call.
But Ros-Lehtinen is mindful that she represents the Foreign Affairs Committee and the broader Republican Party. She says she won’t use her position to advance personal causes.
On her office wall is a photo of Ros-Lehtinen eagerly clasping Obama’s hand.
But those who seek too much meaning in the shot should take notice. She took a similar photo with President Bill Clinton shortly after voting for his impeachment.