U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the first Cuban-American elected to Congress, is retiring at the end of her term next year, saying it’s time to move on after 38 years in office.
The 64-year-old Republican was elected last November to Florida’s redrawn 27th district, a stretch of southeast Miami-Dade County that is heavily Democratic. Hillary Clinton won it over Donald Trump by 20 percentage points, and Ros-Lehtinen was able to win it by 10 percentage points.
Her unexpected retirement will give Democrats an opportunity to pick up a South Florida congressional seat in 2018.
The Miami Herald first reported the retirement Sunday. The congresswoman’s spokesman Keith Fernandez confirmed the announcement with The Associated Press.
In Congress, Ros-Lehtinen staked her ground as a foreign-policy hawk, becoming the first woman to chair a standing congressional committee: the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. She currently chairs the subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, and sits on the intelligence committee.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., called her a “trailblazer.”
“She’s been a relentless advocate for human rights, and a powerful voice on the need to address the dangerous Iranian regime, defend allies like Israel, and so much more,” he wrote. “Ileana’s retirement is well-deserved, but I’m glad we are not losing her yet. We’ve got important work to do for the American people over the next year and a half, and I know Ileana will continue to play a leading role.”
Born in Havana, she is well-known for being a fierce critic of Cuban politics. The late Fidel Castro nicknamed her “la loba feroz” or “the big bad she-wolf.”
For years, Ros-Lehtinen represented the Florida Keys, including gay-friendly Key West, and advocated for LGBTQ rights. Eventually, her transgender son, Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, made his way into the public spotlight. Last year, he and his parents recorded a bilingual public-service TV campaign to urge Hispanics to support transgender youth.
In her remaining 20 months in Congress, Ros-Lehtinen said she will keep pushing for one of her long-running goals for Germany to offer restitution to Holocaust victims.
“And I will continue to stand up to tyrants and dictators all over the world,” she told The Miami Herald. “I take that as a badge of honor, when they blast me and don’t let me in their countries.”
News of her retirement swept through Florida political circles.
“Not only is RosLehtinen a tireless advocate for freedom & human rights – she is my friend. Florida will miss her,” tweeted U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, who worked as an intern in her office 26 years ago.
Gov. Rick Scott wrote on Twitter: “Congresswoman RosLehtinen has fought hard for FL families throughout her service in D.C. Her strong leadership will be greatly missed!”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee used her announcement to criticize her party. “It’s been clear for years that the Republican party was out of step with the values of Miami families, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s retirement announcement is testament to the fact she recognized how wide that gap had grown.”
Ros-Lehtinen is scheduled to have a news conference Monday, her spokesman said.