US Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) at a press conference on Capitol Hill with (FROM LEFT) Senator Rick Santorum, Congressmen Devin Nunes and Mario Diaz-Balart
In the eyes of national pundits, South Florida has become synonymous with the partisan passions that have defined the chasm between modern-day Democrats and Republicans—from the hanging chads of 2000’s presidential election debacle to the statewide Tea Party uprising that catapulted Miami homeboy Marco Rubio to Washington, DC, and has GOP strategists murmuring of a slot on their 2012 White House ticket. Yet here on the ground in the Magic City, party labels not only rarely arise, they’re often unknown.
Pop quiz: What political party did ousted Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez belong to? How about his nemesis, recall orchestrator Norman Braman? The answers are largely irrelevant. For Miamians, not only are all politics local, they’re also a unique hybrid. Where else but in Miami would you find a Republican congresswoman like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a figure who rallies neoconservatives nationwide with her calls to arm Iranian guerilla fighters in their struggle against the Ayatollah? Indeed, when the Castro government’s TV announcers began referring to the Cuban exile Ros-Lehtinen as “She Wolf,” the congresswoman merely smiled and took it as a tribute to her anticommunist bona fides. Dialogue across the Florida Straits? Not for this lady.
Yet Ros-Lehtinen is also a staunch opponent of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding gay and lesbian service members. In fact, she’s become a firm advocate of gay and lesbian civil rights across the board—hardly a standard Republican position. True, the electoral math of representing constituents in both Key West and South Beach probably didn’t hurt in helping her see the light. Having an openly transgender daughter may have provided a further nudge. But neither intimate family ties nor moral hypocrisy has persuaded other leading neoconservative Republicans on these issues. (We’re looking at you, Dick Cheney.)
Moreover, even as Ros-Lehtinen gives fiery speeches on the socialist threats posed by both a resurgent China and El Jefe in Havana, she’s been hostile to proposed cuts to her own country’s state-run healthcare and pension programs (also known as Medicare and Social Security). Other communities might have had a hard time wrapping their heads—and their ballots—around a congresswoman who embodies so many contradictions. Here in Miami, where Ros-Lehtinen has cruised to victory 11 times since first taking office in 1989, it’s just further proof of how little party affiliations matter.