Bipartisanship was in full bloom recently at the Sunset Theatres multiplex in South Miami. Democrats and Republicans who work fiercely to win for their side got together in an unplanned setting and the result was encouraging and a whole lot of fun for those involved.
It was a Sunday afternoon at one of our popular movie houses here, an unlikely venue for D’s and R’s coming together in social conviviality, but that’s what happened. And, the lion’s share of the credit goes to our retiring Congresswoman from District 27 Ileana Ros-Lethinen, Florida’s senior representative in congress.
If you work on the other side of the aisle in politics and you confront the office holder who has beaten your brains out now in 15 straight elections, most of the time your instincts will tell you she is the enemy. Never mind, the congresswoman in question has proved adept at crossing the partisan divide and works hard at constituent service. She’s got the wrong initial in front of her name signifying a different party affiliation.
Cong. Ros-Lethinen had big shoes to fill when she made her run for high office 28 years ago. The official who proceeded her in the district was a powerhouse who had held the office for 27 years, Claude Pepper, a former U. S. Senator and an ally of President Franklin Roosevelt. She had served seven years in the Florida House of Representatives when Pepper died and a special election was announced. Ileana won the seat with 53 percent and never drew less than 58 percent of the vote since then.
One of the first times I noticed Ileana – everyone calls her by her first name, even her opponents—was when another Democratic heavyweight, Cong. Dante Fascell, brought her along as a special guest at one of his popular Labor Day picnics not long after she was elected to congress. You could see she was comfortable crossing the aisle even back then. In much of Florida it doesn’t pay to be an aggressive partisan. Though Ileana’s district, which starts from Miami Beach and takes in parts of Downtown Miami, Coral Gables, South Miami, East Kendall, Pinecrest, and Palmetto Bay down to Cutler Bay started turning blue several years ago, her retirement announcement was a surprise to many. She has been effective in her post, chaired a vital committee in congress, the Foreign Affairs Committee, and was twice chosen to give the Republican response to the State of the Union address of President Obama.
Confronting determined partisans and overcoming barriers is nothing new to this wily politician. She was born in Cuba, her father was an anti-Castro activist and her tenure in the Florida House came when Democrats ruled the roost. She was the first Cuban American and Latina to be elected to the United States Congress and the first woman Republican representative to the House elected from Florida.
When members of the local Democratic club met up with Ileana at the movies, they were prominently displaying their club sign in the lobby so their members in attendance would know where to congregate. She had some support that Sunday: her husband Dexter, a successful politician in his own right, and friends Peter and Bonnie Weiner.
By the time the Democrats noticed who was in their midst, someone got the idea that this impromptu meet up might make for a good photo op. Better yet, maybe it could be an ice breaker for other politicos here and in Washington. Ileana was asked to pose for a picture with her political opponents, and she quickly agreed—smiling and enjoying herself all the way. The two groups even sat near each other in the theatre, as they viewed last year’s good LBJ movie starring Woody Harrelson.
Currently, there are eleven candidates vying for the right to succeed Cong. Ros-Lethinen, eight Democrats and three Republicans, including– most recently– Donna Shalala, the former Clinton cabinet secretary and immediate past president of the University of Miami. I have some advice for all of them. If you want to win this seat and hold onto it, start acting like a bi-partisan. The two people who served in this office for the last 55 years knew how to do precisely that.