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Florida U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen bowing out after three decades in Congress

Her departure opens up a prime opportunity for Democrats to pick up a GOP-held seat

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

MIAMI (CFP) — U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the dean of Florida’s House delegation, will not seek re-election in 2018 to her 27th District seat in Miami-Dade County, drawing down the curtain on three decades of service that have made her an icon in the state’s politically powerful Cuban-American community.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.

The decision means Republicans will now have to defend a seat from a district which Donald Trump lost by 20 points in 2016 but which had continued to return Ros-Lehtinen to office term after term.

“It’s a great job. But there comes a time when you say, you know, even though this is a wonderful life, and even though I’m doing what I love to do, there’s so many other wonderful things,” she said at a May 1 news conference announcing her retirement.

Ros-Lehtinen, a moderate Republican who has found herself at odds with Trump and other members of her own party, also insisted her departure is unrelated to the current political climate in Washington.

“I know it would be a great narrative to say people aren’t civil with each other and that there’s just a lot of infighting,” she said. “But I’ve been there so many years, I don’t recall a time when there hasn’t been infighting.”

“I’m not frustrated by that.”

Ros-Lehtinen, 64, who was born in Cuba and moved to Miami with her parents at the age of 7, won a House seat in a 1989 special election to fill the vacancy created by the death of  Claude Pepper, who himself was a political icon in Miami. She became the first Cuban-American ever elected to Congress and the first Republican woman elected to Congress from Florida.

She has faced little opposition since that first election. However, as the Cuban-American community in Miami has become less monolithically Republican in the last 20 years and district lines have been been altered, the GOP has held on to the district largely because of Ros-Lehtinen’s popularity.

Still, in 2016, she won by just 10 points, as Hillary Clinton was pasting Trump in her district. Democrats were expected to try to contest the seat in 2018, although Ros-Lehtinen expressed confidence that she would have won if she had she run again.

Ros-Lehtinen has left signficant daylight between herself and Trump, refusing to endorse him and opposing both his plans to repeal and replace Obamacare and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. As the mother of a transgender son, she has also been a champion for LGBT equality in Congress.

The 27th is one of just six Southern House seats held by Republicans that Clinton carried, and her margin there was the largest win in any GOP-held district in the country. Ros-Lehtinen’s departure means Democrats will have an opportunity to pick up the seat.

The race to replace Ros-Lehtinen will be a wide open affair, likely drawing a number of Cuban-American politicians from both parties into the mix. Among the Republicans being mentioned is  Lieutenant Governor Carlos López-Cantera, who has run statewide and is closely allied with the state’s two top Republicans, Governor Rick Scott, and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.

Several state legislators are also eyeing the race, which may mean that the field won’t begin to fill out until the legislature adjourns later in May.


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