WASHINGTON — Many on Capitol Hill scoffed when Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican and an ardently pro-Israel lawmaker, started lobbying publicly in March for the chairmanship of the House International Relations Committee.
Several of the other Republicans on the committee had more seniority that she did. More importantly, Ros-Lehtinen lacked the experience, connections or gravitas that one would expect to find in the chair of the committee that handles world affairs, congressional insiders said at the time.
But now, the same insiders agree, Ros-Lehtinen is the leading contender to succeed the retiring Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican, at the helm of the high-profile committee. Last week, two Democratic staffers referred to her receiving the position as “an almost done deal,” and a Republican congressional aide called her a “shoo-in.”
Ros-Lehtinen confounded the skeptics with a healthy mix of ambition and loyalty to President Bush’s foreign policy. It also doesn’t hurt that she is from a prized swing state that voted for Bush twice, or that she is the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress at a time when the GOP is striving to broaden its electoral base among women and Latinos.
A passionate supporter of Israel, the congresswoman has one more important asset: the tacit, yet enthusiastic, support of influential Jewish organizations. Although no Jewish group has endorsed her officially — it is unlikely that any would wade into such a leadership fight — Ros-Lehtinen is known for her close relations with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
What only few of her Jewish fans know, however, is that Ros-Lehtinen has Jewish roots. Her maternal grandfather, Jacobo Adato Levy, was active in Cuba’s Jewish community in the 1940s and helped establish several synagogues. Ros-Lehtinen’s mother was born Jewish but converted to Catholicism when she got married. Ros-Lehtinen is Catholic, but, she said, “I am very proud of my Jewish roots and very proud of my grandfather — for his activity throughout the years when he lived in Cuba to promote the Jewish community and promote the Jewish religion there.”
The Florida lawmaker said that she does not know much about her Jewish grandparents — her mother doesn’t talk about them often –– but she knows that they were Sephardic Jews, originally from Turkey, and that her grandfather was a pillar of the Jewish community in Cuba. When she and her parents left for the United States after Fidel Castro took power, her grandfather stayed behind with his ailing wife. Both grandparents died in Havana.
Ros-Lehtinen does not talk about her Jewish roots; few people on Capitol Hill know about them. In fact, it is impossible to find any published stories about the congresswoman that mention her Jewish roots. Even most of her Jewish constituents in Miami have only heard distant rumors and nothing more, despite Ros-Lehtinen’s closeness to Miami’s Jewish community.
When pressed during a recent interview to discuss the issue, she was polite, but reserved.
“The reason that I never talk about it is because I feel like people will think that I am using my lineage as a political tool,” she said. “I don’t want to mess with the politics of something so personal.”
A short strawberry-blonde, Ros-Lehtinen seems much more comfortable discussing her campaign to be chair of the House International Relations Committee and her support for Bush’s policies.
Impatient and eager, she answered most questions before they were asked in full, and did so in a speedy staccato.
As chairwoman, the congresswoman said, she would leverage the committee to promote human rights and freedom worldwide, to fight poverty and bolster the rule of law around the globe. A woman at the head of the committee, she added, would serve as a positive example worldwide for female empowerment. To make the point, she noted her current stint as chair of the House subcommittee on the Middle East, and in particular a meeting she had last month with the emir of Qatar. According to Ros-Lehtinen, the Qatari ruler started the meeting by boasting about his country’s recent progress in advancing women’s rights.
The congresswoman’s computer monitor is crowned with a red-white-and-blue hat that reads “Madame President.” When asked about what she plans to do “if” she becomes committee chair, Ros-Lehtinen interrupts with a “when.” After a cautious reporter sticks with “if,” she jumps up, swings her arm back, as if ready to strike.
Of course, Ros-Lehtinen is joking. But unlike the other contenders, she has lobbied quite ferociously for the committee chairmanship — even though Hyde will actually only vacate the position in November 2006. And for Ros-Lehtinen to assume the chairmanship, the GOP will have to retain its majority in the House in next year’s elections.
Clearly, then, she has the drive — but that is not enough for a House Republican to advance through the ranks. The key to climbing the ranks in the Republican-controlled Washington is loyalty, and Ros-Lehtinen is extremely loyal to her party and to the president — as opposed one of her chief Republican challengers, Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, who has displayed a willingness to butt heads with GOP congressional leaders and the White House.
Hyde is not known as a strong committee chair. And, staffers on both sides of the aisle say, under his leadership the committee has not been an aggressive watchdog seeking administration accountability on foreign policy. Hyde called for only three hearings on Iraq since the beginning of the war.
Ros-Lehtinen would be more active, her staffers say. But Democrats on the committee who know her — and like her — say they would be surprised if she takes a more independent line. “She’s personable and amicable and fair, which is why we like her,” a Democratic staffer says. “But she follows the party line; she doesn’t cause trouble, which is why they like her.”
When asked about her foreign policy agenda, Ros-Lehtinen replies that it is basically similar to the president’s. On the topic of Iraq, she criticizes the media for accentuating the negative.
As for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations, Ros-Lehtinen says that she supports the president’s two-state vision.
In her current post as chair of the Middle East subcommittee, she has led or is leading some of Aipac’s most celebrated legislative initiatives, including the 2003 law to impose sanctions on Syria and a major bill, currently gaining momentum in the House with 322 co-sponsors, to punish Iran for its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Josh Block, a spokesman for Aipac, called the Florida Republican “a true leader on issues that matter to the pro-Israel community and that are at the heart of American policy in the Middle East.”
On a recent Thursday night, Ros-Lehtinen seemed as if she was trying to prove Block’s point, as she met with a group of experts on an alleged international money-laundering scheme, involving the regimes of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Iran and Cuba.
The wall separating Ros-Lehtinen’s office and that of her neighbor, Democrat Collin Peterson of Minnesota, was shaking with the loud drum-and-bass rhythm of the Second Amendments, the House’s rock-and-roll band. Peterson, the singer and lead guitarist, was backed up by four Republicans: Thad McCotter of Michigan on guitar, Dave Weldon of Florida on bass, Jon Porter of Nevada on keyboards and Kenny Hulshof of Missouri on drums.
Ros-Lehtinen did not mind the pounding on the other side of the wall, calling herself the band’s head groupie.
With the lawmakers-rockers playing away in the background, in addition to holding her meeting on international money laundering, she gave an interview in fluent Spanish to a local Hispanic television station — her electoral district is almost 60% Latino — and an interview to the Forward (in English, not Yiddish). Then she jumped up to rush to a meeting at the Capitol, but not before spelling out her argument for why American Jews should support her candidacy for the House chairmanship.
Besides her commitment to Israel, Ros-Lehtinen said, American Jews should take note of her commitment to fighting for human rights. She said she joined the efforts to stop genocide, including in Darfur, Sudan, because of the oppression she faced in Cuba and the experience of becoming a refugee.
Ros-Lehtinen escaped Cuba with her mother and brother in 1960, when she was 8. Her father, a leading opposition activist, joined them several months later and has remains until today, at the age of 81, an activist in the expatriate anti-Castro movement. “From him, I got the sense of right and wrong and democracy versus tyrannical rule,” she said. “I learned it not in the textbooks but at our dinner table.”