News Column

Exclusive Interview: US Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Sept. 6, 2012


U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

With the Republican National Convention over and the Democratic National Convention about to wrap up, voters will look to political debates in October for answers to ongoing questions.

Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida's 18th congressional district is not one to shy away from her positions on the economy and social issues. In the interview below, Ros-Lehtinen discusses why she backs Mitt Romney and why she believes President Obama has failed the country.

Born in Havana, Cuba, she immigrated with her family to the U.S. when she was 7 years old.

She was elected to Congress in 1989. In this exclusive interview, Ros-Lehtinen admits that being the first Cuban-American and the first Hispanic woman elected to the House of Representatives made her nervous, but that feeling has since subsided. She attributes her accomplishment to U.S. diversity for encouraging such a feat.

She is currently the most senior Republican woman in the House, and was the first Republican woman elected to the House from Florida. In 2011, she became chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

She is one of only three Republican members of the LGBT Equality Caucus, of which she is a founding member. In September 2011, Ros-Lehtinen became the first Republican member of Congress to co-sponsor the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. In July 2012, she was the first Republican in the House to fully support same-sex marriage. asked Ros-Lehtinen about her current political goals and what she thinks of issues affecting small-business owners and entrepreneurs. What are the main domestic issues that will drive Hispanic voters to the polling place in this election cycle?

Ros-Lehtinen: The core issue for all demographics, including Hispanics, continues to be the economy. Our nation is in an economic crisis. Americans are having a tough time finding jobs and providing for their families.

At the same time, our children are graduating and finding themselves tossed into a discouraging job market where they would be lucky to find employment at all, let alone finding it in their career field.

The choice all Americans will be making is who best will get our economy back to creating private-sector jobs. They will be looking for leaders who will remove obstacles to the long-term economic growth and strengthen the job market, reduce the tax burden on their families and their small businesses, and help bring back the same opportunities for their children that they enjoyed.

Related: 2012 Presidential Debate Schedule What issues are not getting the media coverage they deserve, both in general and those that might concern U.S. Hispanic citizens in particular?

Ros-Lehtinen: As a former educator, I have always believed that a quality education is the best tool to combat socioeconomic disparities. Education is the silver bullet that can help men and women of all backgrounds achieve their potential and make a better life for themselves and their children.

The status dropout rate for Hispanic students has come a long way. Between 1990 and 2010, status dropout rates for Hispanics have declined from 32 percent to 15 percent. However, Hispanics remain to have the highest dropout rate over all other ethnic groups in the United States, with only 58 percent of Hispanics completing high school.

Education is not simply a means to an end, but rather a vital tool that can help overcome poverty, ignorance and so much more. Literacy is paramount in the struggle for self-empowerment and education. Knowledge is power and without literacy our youth will not be able to succeed. What role are Hispanic politicians like yourself playing in this presidential election?

Ros-Lehtinen: As one of the few native Spanish speakers in the U.S. Congress, I have the opportunity to extend the dialogue to the many first-generation Americans in insular Hispanic communities that otherwise are overlooked.

Related story: "Julian Castro Makes Historical Speech: Transcript" U.S. Hispanics overwhelmingly support Obama and other Democrats. How would Mitt Romney help Hispanics?

Ros-Lehtinen: All Americans, Hispanic or of any other racial or ethnic background, first and foremost are concerned with the economy and creating jobs. With so many Americans out of work and struggling just to make ends meet, we need to get our economy on track and get people back to work.

Mitt Romney knows this. He understands that we need to get Americans back to work, because when the economy is strong and Americans are working, our families are strong; our country is strong. He is a leader and a reformer who understands the challenges that face our nation, and he knows that the first step to recovery is to empower the people, not the government. Mitt Romney will help all Americans by restoring our nation to a land of opportunity, not of dependency. How does it feel to be the first Republican woman elected to the House of Representatives from Florida?

Ros-Lehtinen: My election to the House of Representatives in 1989 marked the first time that a Hispanic woman was ever elected to the United States Congress. Since that time, I have worked to advance and highlight issues on the floor of the House that would benefit all Americans.

The fact that I was indeed the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress made me nervous. I felt there was a lot of added pressure, but I am proud to have broken a barrier, and to represent Floridians in the U.S. Congress. To me, this is not only a career but a passion.

Being the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress says a lot, not about me, but about this country. The possibilities are endless and the only thing that stands in the way of your dreams is the limits you put on yourself. What are the main issues affecting small-business owners and entrepreneurs, and what is your office doing to address their concerns?

Ros-Lehtinen: Behind the worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression is the unprecedented growth of federal government regulation. The first key to recovery is easing the regulatory burden on America's job creators, especially small businesses. The House has passed, with my support, over two dozen bipartisan jobs bills that would provide relief from these record amounts of red tape.

The reality is that government does not create jobs. The best thing bureaucrats can do is to get out of the way and let the creativity and work ethic of the people revitalize our economy. Small-business owners and entrepreneurs do not need to be saddled with onerous regulations and uncertainty.

We need to help, not hinder, these vital job creators -- I am committed to help spur job creation and get our economy back on track so that Americans can do what they do best: create, innovate and lead. What are your thoughts on how the Obama administration is handling the economic recovery?

Ros-Lehtinen: This administration is one of lofty rhetoric, empty promises and unprecedented spending. There is no understanding of the need for fiscal responsibility and of private-sector job creation. All we have seen is more taxation, regulation and spending. These are not the answers.

This is a time where we look to our leaders for bold solutions and concrete plans to get Americans back to work. Our economy will not improve if we continue the failed policies of deficit spending and over-regulation. It is time to put partisanship aside and unleash the power of the American entrepreneur. What are some of your current political goals? And how do you plan to achieve them?

Ros-Lehtinen: Although a stagnant economy and rising federal debt are most pressing issues, many in the district are also interested in international issues, such as U.S. policy toward Cuba, Israel, Haiti, Venezuela and other countries. As the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I have worked hard to encourage the spread of democracy and freedom abroad, particularly to the peoples of this hemisphere.

In addition, I care deeply and remain outspoken about the protection of universally recognized human rights and have made this a priority during my tenure in Congress. I continue to stand in solidarity with those oppressed people that are striving for liberty and justice while condemning those regimes that ignore the rule of law. As public servants, we must speak out against these abuses and support the respect for liberty and fundamental freedoms for people around the globe. What are some, if any, discriminations Latinas face in U.S. politics? And have you ever been discriminated against because you were Hispanic or female?

Ros-Lehtinen: Women have overcome many obstacles in the last century. It is a thrilling time to see women reach great heights as they represent the United States in the public and private sectors.

When I was first elected to Congress in 1989, I became the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress. At the time, women only made up 5 percent of Congress, and since then that percentage of women has risen to 17 percent. It is amazing that, in our country, the public is free to support and elect a leader, no matter their gender, race or religion.

Women play a tremendous role in our society. We are mothers, wives, business leaders, scholars, scientists and public servants and, yes, even members of Congress and Cabinet members. Our successes and triumphs are America's triumphs, and our contributions to our nation are long-lasting and significant.

Source: (c) 2012. All rights reserved.

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