First Latina Elected To Congress Retires With A Warning To Republicans Florida GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen tells NPR her party is "going backward," focusing on "the white, male conservative" with potentially dire consequences in a changing country.
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First Latina Elected To Congress Retires With A Warning To Republicans

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First Latina Elected To Congress Retires With A Warning To Republicans

First Latina Elected To Congress Retires With A Warning To Republicans

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is wrapping up her 30-year run in Congress, and her last days have been less than glamorous. She's already been booted from her Capitol Hill office suite and is working out of a small annex without a properly working phone.

ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: We don't even have a printer here. So when - we have to go somewhere else to print my remarks. And (laughter)...

MARTIN: Her current digs aside, Ros-Lehtinen has had a remarkable run. She was the first Latina elected to Congress, the first Cuban-American elected, the first woman to chair the foreign affairs committee. She managed all that as a Republican in a Democratic-leaning Miami district. When I talked with her recently, I asked her about the Democrat taking her place, Donna Shalala.

ROS-LEHTINEN: She's a former president of the University of Miami - go 'Canes - and former head of the Clinton Foundation, former Health and Human Services head under the Bill Clinton administration. And I told her - are you sure you want this job? You know, you come up here every week, go back home, come up here. You're one of 435. And she says she's ready for the challenge.

MARTIN: I read your statement on your website, a letter to your constituents saying goodbye and also saying, you know, this is your new representative, introducing Donna Shalala. And it was very generous.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well...

MARTIN: And it stood out in this moment because you just don't hear that kind of bipartisan overtures.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Now, I worked for the Republican candidate, Maria Elvira Salazar. I tried my best to get her elected, so I don't want you to think that I helped Donna Shalala get elected. I would have much rather had the other lady win. But it is such a hyperpartisan time here that people seem to think that you can't say anything nice about anyone if they're from the other party. I'm sure that Shalala's goals for the district's constituents are the same as Salazar.

MARTIN: It's no secret that Americans don't have a lot of faith in Congress right now. How do you characterize the state of this body as you get ready to leave?

ROS-LEHTINEN: We need to be in a therapy session to find out how you can resolve the problems without attacking one another. And that's why we've bogged down and we have shutdown battles every year - because no side wants to give.

MARTIN: I mean, you outline the polarization right now that everyone's gone to their corners and that moderates are getting squeezed out. I mean, you were a Republican who represented a Democratic-leaning district in South Florida. Just speaking from that vantage point, do you think Republicans can still win in a district like yours?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Absolutely. I think that if I had run, I would have done, actually, better than I had in the previous time because I'm able to get moderates from the Democratic side and conservative Democrats to vote for me and still maintain my base. But it's time to move on. It was just the right time. And it felt right, and I'm glad I made that decision. But it's been the greatest honor of my professional life. I'm not saying that I'm leaving because Donald Trump got elected. I'm a Republican, but I did not vote for Trump. I'm a Jeb Bush Republican and a George W. Bush Republican. And we had a lovely mass for President Bush 41. And I'm thinking, boy, those speeches - can they really be said in this day and age? Things have changed. My party has changed.

MARTIN: This is, I mean, the party of Donald Trump now. I mean, are you disappointed in your - in specifically the House leadership, in Paul Ryan, for not taking a more vocal stance against President Trump?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Paul Ryan has been a good leader, an effective leader. I like him. I love him. I respect him. And when he has stood apart from President Trump, all that he gets is a lot of grief. There's no easy stance for a Republican who disagrees with Donald Trump to make other than saying - what? - do you want me to switch parties? No, I am a Republican, and I believe in limited government. I believe in what the Republican Party stands for. But we need to get back to that and not have a litmus test for every single vote that we have up here. We no longer want to espouse a big-tent philosophy. It's not the Donald Trump Party. And I'm a proud Republican, but I'm just not a Donald Trump Republican.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about that big-tent philosophy because there's been a lot of criticism about the party's lack of diversity, which wasn't - it wasn't the most diverse party to begin with. For years, it hasn't been that. And the new Congress, when they're seated in January, there will be only 13 Republican women, if I'm correct, which is a reduction from 23 - which, again, wasn't that many. What's going on?

ROS-LEHTINEN: It is unbelievable. And I hope that our Republican leaders see this as a challenge and a problem that we need to fix. We're actually going backward.

MARTIN: Why do you think that's happened?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, we need to pay attention to the changing demographics of our country, and we have not been attuned to that. We've been appealing to one certain section of America.

MARTIN: Which one?

ROS-LEHTINEN: And I don't know what you want to call it, but the white, male conservative is definitely getting a lot of issues thrown their way. And I don't want people to hear me and say, boy, she's being racist because she's talking about whites or she's being sexist because she's talking about males. But when you look at the composition of our U.S. House of Representatives, it's made up of white males. I mean, that's a fact.

Young people rejected the Republican Party. There's really no other way to say it. Suburban women left our party, and minorities did not see us as a welcoming voice. You just have to show people that you care, and we're not even willing to do that. We don't go to those neighborhoods. We don't go to suburbia. We don't talk to the women. We're not doing anything to appeal to those groups.

MARTIN: How do you do that when President Trump is in the White House? Because you talk to suburban women about why they're fleeing the Republican Party and many of them will point to Donald Trump.

ROS-LEHTINEN: You have to really personalize your election and make sure that you separate yourself from the national ticket because when you are running, there's the sense that people had that all politics is local. But Donald Trump is just a bigger-than-life personality, so he's making your local election a referendum on his presidency. And that's a shame because every individual candidate and every individual member of Congress should be standing on his or her own footing. So I think the Republicans could do very well in 2020. But...

MARTIN: If they have that independent voice.

ROS-LEHTINEN: If they have that independent voice, unless you're in a great conservative district where you don't have to worry about it. But those numbers are diminishing.

MARTIN: What's it going to be like when you have to walk out of this building for the last time as a member?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Just wonderful because I've enjoyed every minute, I'm ready for a new life and I'm going to enjoy that every minute as well. This is my adopted homeland. I was born in Cuba, came here when I was 8. And I just can't imagine - who would have ever thought that I would be a member of Congress? Who would have ever thought that I would chair the foreign affairs committee? I still think I put one over somebody. But here I am (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF HARRIS COLE AND ASO'S "BLUE AND GREEN")

MARTIN: That was my conversation with retiring Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARRIS COLE AND ASO'S "BLUE AND GREEN")

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