MIAMI (CBSMiami) — Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen spoke out for the first time since announcing she will retire from Congress at the end of her term next year.
“The time has come for me to seek a new challenge,” she said Monday morning.
After 38 years in office, she said it was time to move on, making her the first Cuban-American elected to Congress to retire.
“I have been so honored and so blessed and humbled to have served our South Florida community for almost four decades,” she said. “I am proud of the work we have accomplished.”
Ros-Lehtinen promised her constituents she would continue to work hard for the next 20 months especially when it comes to human rights violations in Cuba and fighting for Holocaust survivors.
“It’s still business as usual,” she said. “I’ve still got 20 months left of fight in me.”
Ros-Lehtinen has succeeded in leading efforts to get millions of dollars in reparations from Germany for Holocaust survivors. Key among remaining tasks is persuading the insurance giant, Allianz, to honor unpaid life insurance policies for Holocaust victims.
“She’ll be missed,” said Holocaust survivor David Mermelstein who attended the Monday news conference. “I don’t know of anybody that could do the things that she did for us survivors.”
Ros-Lehtinen addressed rumors that she may have not been re-elected had she run again.
“By the next election, I am confident that my constituents would have extended my term of office further should I have chosen to do so,” said Ros-Lehtinen.
With a smile on her face, the congresswoman said it’s not a goodbye, just something new.
“Today is about new beginnings, not about endings,” said Ros-Lehtinen.
As for why now and what’s next, she said she wants to do more things she loves but there’s no set plan yet.
“I love what I do but I want to do others things I love to do,” she said. “I have my doctorate in education. Who knows. I don’t even know what I’ll do.”
The congresswoman first explained her decision Sunday in a piece published by CBS4 news partner the Miami Herald, calling it ‘personal decision.’
Sixty-four year old Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, was elected last November to Florida’s 27th district, a stretch of southeast Miami-Dade County which had been redrawn and is heavily Democratic.
During the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton won it over Donald Trump by 20 percentage points. Ros-Lehtinen was able to win that same district by 10 percentage points.
Her retirement will give Democrats an opportunity to swoop in and possibly pick up the congressional seat in 2018.
Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen was the first woman to chair the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and became known as a foreign-policy hawk. She is currently serving as chair to the subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa and is part of the intelligence committee.
As a Cuban native, born in Havana, Ros-Lehtinen is also a fierce critic of Cuban politics and the Castro regime. Former Cuban Leader Fidel Castro nicknamed her ‘la loba feroz’ which translates to the ‘fierce she-wolf.’
For years, Ros-Lehtinen represented the Florida Keys, including gay-friendly Key West, and advocated for LGBTQ rights. Eventually, her transgender son, Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, made his way into the public spotlight. Last year, he and his parents recorded a bilingual public-service TV campaign to urge Hispanics to support transgender youth.
Advocates for the LGBTQ community lament her departure.
“She stood behind her family as my family,” said Vince Foster. “It shows how genuine her love and support of the LGBT community is.”
Following her announcement, other political leaders in Florida came out to share their thoughts on Ros-Lehtinen.
“Not only is @RosLehtinen a tireless advocate for freedom & human rights – she is my friend. Florida will miss her,” tweeted Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) who worked as an intern in her office 26 years ago.
Gov. Rick Scott wrote on Twitter, “Congresswoman @RosLehtinen has fought hard for FL families throughout her service in D.C. Her strong leadership will be greatly missed!”
“It has been an honor and a pleasure to work with Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. One of the great strengths of the Florida delegation is the ability of all of its members to put partisan differences aside and work closely together on issues of mutual interest and concern,” said Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D-FL) in a statement. “Ileana was the first Latina woman to be elected to Congress. Throughout her tenure on Capitol Hill and her service in Florida’s House and Senate, she has been a force to be reckoned with and unafraid to veer from the Party line. I love Ileana and will miss having her as a colleague, but we will forever be friends.”
The Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) also issued a statement, saying in part,
“The Congresswoman has served her constituents and the people of Florida with great pride and respect, and we are eternally grateful for her extraordinary commitment and service. The RPOF wishes Ros-Lehtinen, alongside her family, all the best as they embark on the next chapter of their lives, and we once again thank her for representing all Floridians with such fervor and humility throughout the years!”
From across the aisle, Ros-Lehtinen earned much praise.
“(Ros-Lehtinen) has been someone who embodied the spirit of public service and bipartisan cooperation,” said Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
As for Ros-Lehtinen, she says she hopes he career in politics will help inspire other women, especially Latin women, to join in.
“For me, something that has always been special is to be a person that young women look up to and say ‘I can become the next Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,’ and to that I say, ‘yes, of course,'” she said. “I need someone to replace me. That position is for you.”
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