Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Miami) struck fear into the hearts of Democrats and career diplomats alike during her 2011-2013 tenure as Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. A tough questioner, she championed hardline conservative views with the aplomb of a 30-year House veteran. But she is also one of those increasingly rare creatures – an elected official with a vocation for bipartisanship and the confidence to work with the other side of the aisle to advance a common cause.
This is particularly true, in her case, when that cause is the U.S. relationship with Latin America and the Caribbean. As a loyal Democrat who has spent a career working on that region, I could not help but receive with sadness her recent decision to retire.
We don’t agree on a whole lot. Ros-Lehtinen, the first Cuban American elected to Congress, was a staunch opponent of President Obama’s December 2014 Cuba policy changes. She was also a vocal critic of the peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. I recall one meeting on regional issues hosted by Vice President Biden in 2014 with members of Congress in which she cornered him to give him a piece of her mind on Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, and everything else she thought the administration was getting wrong.
But Ros-Lehtinen is also someone Democrats respect and can work with. Vice President Biden took her seriously, even when they held opposing views. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton consulted regularly with Ros-Lehtinen, who was a strong advocate for reconstruction efforts in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, and traveled there in January 2011 with former President Bill Clinton and Haiti Special Envoy Cheryl Mills. She was also a staunch supporter of democracy assistance to Venezuela. Most importantly, she was an important voice for the Latino community in calling for comprehensive immigration reform and in defending the right of DREAMers to remain in the United States.
I spoke just as often with members of her staff as with colleagues on the Democratic side during my four and a half years at the White House and as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the final year of the Obama Administration. Yes, we argued, but more often we sought bipartisan ways to collaborate. The relationship with Ros-Lehtinen’s staff often reminded me of that old Warner Bros. Looney Tunes satire where Ralph E. Wolf and Sam Sheepdog are compared to blue collar workers who commute and eat lunch together as friends, but then punch a time clock and fight over the sheep herd.
One of the areas of collaboration was on Nicaragua. After I testified on Nicaragua in September 2016, a colleague asked me why Ros-Lehtinen had taken it so easy on me. I explained that I’d made myself available to her team and spent weeks going back and forth with various congressional offices on how to improve the draft legislation. I knew I couldn’t talk Ros-Lehtinen’s office out of introducing legislation altogether, but her staff was open to ensuring its contents helped combat corruption without harming the Nicaraguan people.
Rumor also has it that Rep. Eliot Engel – the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee – partnered with Ros-Lehtinen to support the increased funding for Central America and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative in the Fiscal Year 2017 omnibus. This would have gone against President Donald Trump’s plans to drastically cut funding for such U.S. initiatives. That type of bipartisan cooperation in Congress has defined U.S. policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean, and policy makers have come to rely on it through Republican and Democratic administration alike. In that regard, Ros-Lehtinen’s retirement is a loss that should worry Democrats and Republicans alike.
Don’t get me wrong – the voters of Florida’s 27th District should elect a Democrat to replace Ros-Lehtinen. But let it be a Democrat who shares her commitment to keeping regional issues on the legislative agenda, her passion for Latin America, and her openness to dialogue.
Gonzalez leads the Latin America practice at The Cohen Group, and was previously Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and Special Advisor to Vice President Joe Biden.