Ros-Lehtinen's retirement leaves Congress a void she filled with heart, grit
© Getty

For nearly forty years, she has intimidated dictators and charmed prime ministers. South Florida, the nation, and the world are losing an irreplaceable gem when Rep. Ileana Ros-LehtinenIleana Carmen Ros-LehtinenEx-Florida GOP congresswoman under federal investigation: report 'Trump show' convention sparks little interest on K Street Shalala to face Salazar in Florida rematch MORE (R-Fla.) departs Congress 20 months hence.  I know — I worked for her for a decade as an intern, press advisor, and foreign affairs analyst. And I worked with many of her colleagues as well, which enabled me to focus on the special qualities that continue to set Ileana apart.  

When it comes to personal qualities, it is difficult to enumerate and explain, so a more vague assessment must suffice:  Ileana is the political “It Girl.”  The person who can say the hard things in a palatable way, who remembers your mother’s hip surgery when she runs into you at the airport, and who is unafraid to approach heads of state and powerful committee chairmen with the same disarming frankness.  

In short, she is always herself, but in her case, self and self-determination (with some help from her adored family who instilled these important qualities.) enabled a young refugee from communism to climb to the top of the greasy pole of politics (to borrow a phrase from another great statesman, Benjamin Disraeli).

Born in Havana to a political family (her father, Enrique Ros was an author, political pundit, and one of the leaders of the anti-Castro, anti-communist movement), Ileana and her family fled to Miami in 1960.  With her parents’ love, guidance, and example, Ileana grew to prize education as a means for advancement.  Eventually earning her doctorate in education, Ros-Lehtinen began her professional life as a teacher, and, even though she has sat in the powerful congressional chairman’s seat, she considers herself an educator still today,


Her official congressional biography states: “ I was inspired to enter public service by many of the parents and students; to fight on their behalf for a stronger educational system, lower taxes, and a brighter economic future.”


This encouragement led her to win seats in Florida state government, and in 1989, she became the first ever Hispanic woman elected to the U.S. Congress and eventually the first woman elected to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Ileana’s success is due in large part to her dedication to service on behalf of her constituents.  A tireless advocate on behalf of South Floridians, Ros-Lehtinen’s “constituents” continually expanded as she chaired subcommittee after subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, eventually taking the chairman’s gavel in  2011.  During her Congressional career, Ileana has fought tirelessly on behalf of so many who needed her help: Cuban and Haitian refugees, Holocaust survivors, beleaguered Middle East Christians, Chinese political prisoners, service members and veterans, gays, lesbians, and the transgendered, the list is endless.  But she never forgot to put service first.

Beyond her commitment to championing those she serves, Ileana’s greatest attributes are personal.  When I worked for her, I would marvel daily at her approach, which earned her the affection of colleagues on both sides of the divide.  I recall heated congressional hearings when Ileana would bring the room back to civility with a quip or a humorous remark.  If someone she liked entered one of these sessions, it would not be unusual for them to get a smothering hug as whips and clerks were bickering around her.  She has just the right touch of humility, humor, and can deliver stinging criticism, somehow with a twinkle in her eye.  

While some might dismiss these “soft skills” as of secondary importance, Ros-Lehtinen’s great charm serves her extremely well in negotiations.  

She is like th pied piper when it comes to gaining the support of colleagues, and I remember our office being flooded by other members wanting to know how Ileana was going to vote on this or that not only because they wanted to align themselves with her, but because they had deep trust for her political judgement.  I recall a meeting in the Capitol where former House Majority Leader and Reagan Revolutionary Dick Armey told House Leaders that since Reagan, there was but one of their colleagues who possessed his ability to say hard things in a pleasant way, and that was none other than Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

And the nation should take a lesson from Chairman Ros-Lehtinen, particularly in times where our society seems to be so polarized.  Ileana is the living embodiment of warmth and charm occasionally conquering policy dissonance.

But make no mistake, to enemies of the United States, Ileana is as fearless and uncompromising as any military commander. She has stood up to the thugs of the world: Castro, Ahmadinejad, Maduro, Kim Jong Il, and so many others.  Her tenacity prompted the murderous dictator Fidel Castro to unaffectionately dub her “la loba feroz” (the she-wolf).  

Where American interests and those of our allies are concerned, Ileana is uncompromising. Ros-Lehtinen’s announced retirement will prove a huge void as the passionate “heart” of Congress goes on to climb new vistas. Vaya con Dios, Ileana. Thank you for your service!

Lee Cohen is a New York City-based public relations consultant and the New York Director of the Anglosphere Society.  He spent years advising the U.S. Congress on messaging and foreign affairs policy.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.