She hung up on the next US president, Barack Obama.
Twice. She thought it was a prank.
In an expert stroke of political spin, she immediately sent out a press release explaining the apparent snub as a mix-up.
Meet Florida US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Cuban-American to serve in Congress and the next in line to head the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The phone incident occurred in late 2008 as the president-elect reached out to potentially friendly Republicans and shortly after a radio host fooled Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin by impersonating the president of France on the phone. However, it was vintage “Ily,” as she is known in Washington: frank, almost irreverent, yet imbued with an underlying seriousness and political savvy.
It was also a reminder that 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 is scheduled to 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.
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 US 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 US Attorney Dexter Lehtinen, is still best known for her staunch support of the USembargo against the communist nation.
“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 UN’s Human Rights Council along with China and Saudi Arabia and would like US contributions to the UN to be voluntary until the US creates an office to audit UN activities for transparency and eliminate waste.
“The UN functions very well for Iran and Venezuela, and every two-bit dictator who’s envious and hates the United States,” she said. “But for countries that contribute a lot to the UN, 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.”
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.
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 that helped prompt Obama’s call.
On her office wall is a photo of Ros-Lehtinen eagerly clasping Obama’s hand. However, those who seek too much meaning in the shot should take notice. She took a similar photo with former US president Bill Clinton shortly after voting for his impeachment.
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