U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Cuban-American elected to Congress and the first congressional Republican to publicly support marriage equality, is retiring next year at the end of her term.
Ros-Lehtinen, 64, will have spent almost three decades in Congress, having been elected for the first time in 1989. Her unexpected retirement was first reported by the Miami Herald on Sunday, and confirmed in an open letter published by the paper later Sunday afternoon.
“It’s been such a delight and a high honor to serve our community for so many years and help constituents every day of the week,” she told The Herald in a phone interview. “We just said, ‘It’s time to take a new step.’ ”
The Republican congresswoman said she had no doubt she could’ve won re-election had she sought it in 2018, despite a shifting political climate in her district.
The newly-redrawn 27th District covers much of southeast Miami-Dade County, and Democrat Hillary Clinton won it by more than 20 percentage points over Donald Trump in the 2016 election. It was Clinton’s largest margin of victory of any Republican-held district in the country, according to The Herald, and although Ros-Lehtinen beat her Democratic opponent by 10 percentage points, it was her closest re-election in years.
Since Trump’s election, Ros-Lehtinen has been among the president’s most vocal Republican dissenters in Congress. She said she did not vote for Trump in last year’s general election, and has disagreed with him on immigration, transgender rights, budget cuts, and health care.
“I don’t agree with many, if not most, positions of President Trump,” she told The Herald.
Democrats were already said to be eyeing Florida’s 27th District as a seat they could turn in 2018, so with Ros-Lehtinen now officially out of the picture, the party is expected to pour resources into an election without a clear Republican heir apparent.
“Big Bad Wolf”
Born in Havana, Ros-Lehtinen and her family fled the Castro regime in Cuba when she was 8 years old. She was a fierce critic of Cuban politics, even garnering the nickname “the big bad wolf” from Fidel Castro.
She became the first woman to chair a standing congressional committee, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, according to the Associated Press, and made a name for herself as a foreign-policy hawk.
More recently, the congresswoman has been notable for her stances on LGBT issues. She has a transgender son, who is an outspoken activist, and in 2012, Ros-Lehtinen became the first Republican in congress to publicly support marriage equality.
Prior to serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, Ros-Lehtinen was also the first Hispanic woman to serve in the Florida House of Representatives and the Florida Senate. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush worked as her campaign manager during her first campaign for Congress in 1989, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio worked in her office as an intern in the 1990s.
The congresswoman is scheduled to announce her retirement in a press conference on Monday, according to the AP.