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International Assembly Elects Hastings President

Last week in Edinburgh, Scotland, Alcee Hastings attended the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as a Member of the House of Representatives. While there, though, he picked up a slightly loftier title: Mr. President.

On Friday, following a week of intense campaigning by fellow politicians on the other side of the pond, Hastings, a six-term Democrat from Florida, easily bested candidates from Finland and France to become president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE — a predominantly European group that also includes legislators from the United States, Canada and Central Asian republics. The 55-nation organization focuses on arms control, diplomacy, human rights, election monitoring and other security issues.

“It’s much more intense than running [here] and speaking to a church or standing out in front of a shopping mall handing out literature to strangers,” Hastings said of his brief campaign, which largely consisted of meet-and-greets over coffee and tea with other parliamentary members.

Hastings — who ran on a platform that emphasized the importance of combating racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia in the OSCE region — said his election symbolized the beginning of a thaw in U.S.-European relations, which have grown frosty in recent years due to disagreements over a range of issues, especially the Iraq war.

“The mere fact I was elected and elected overwhelmingly is a signal that some Europeans want it understood they don’t have hostilities toward Americans,” Hastings said, adding that he intended to be “a useful instrument in solidifying the trans-Atlantic bond.”

After winning the presidency with more than 55 percent of the vote, Hastings said he will likely travel “no less than eight times” to Europe in the coming year for meetings. He will also be charged with appointing members of the OSCE’s election-monitoring teams, including one that will monitor November’s U.S. presidential election.

Asked if the fact that Hastings was a Democrat from Florida would play any role in his approach to the monitoring process, Hastings said it would not affect who would take part — since Hastings must choose from among a relatively small pool of assembly members with election-monitoring experience — but it could affect where the monitors would be stationed.

“I think Florida and Illinois are definitely places that I will ask them to go. … I want them to come to my counties: Broward, Palm Beach and Martin.

“What better place for them to see substantive changes if any have taken place,” he added of Florida, noting that the monitoring team would come to only “two or three states at most.”

Hastings will also oversee the historic first U.S. meeting of the assembly next summer in Washington, D.C. That event alone is expected to draw some 1,000 people to the nation’s capital during the first week of July.

Hastings credits House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who also attended the Edinburgh session, with first encouraging him to take a leadership role in the group. The connection began in 1996 when Hoyer — unbeknownst to Hastings, and joined by now-Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham — nominated the Florida Congressman to become rapporteur (the de facto agenda setter) of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security.

Hastings eventually rose to vice chairman and then chairman of that panel, before assuming one of the assembly’s nine vice presidencies three years ago.

“I worked myself straight up through,” Hastings laughed, noting that after his initial election to rapporteur, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) dubbed him “the master rapper.”

Hoyer, who himself served two three-year terms as a vice president of the assembly, said in a statement that the election of Hastings — the first North American and the first member of an ethnic or racial minority to hold the post — marked “an important landmark for the United States.”

While Hastings conceded that his liberal politics no doubt made it easier for some Europeans to vote for an American, he was quick to point out that no less a conservative than Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) had supported his bid. In a letter to OSCE assembly parliamentarians, Hastert praised Hastings’ “instinctive ability to identify solutions and build common ground for their implementation.”

Hastings is not the only House Member to head the parliamentary assembly of an international body. Retiring Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.) is the outgoing chairman of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. And other Americans who hold prominent positions in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly include Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), who currently chairs the Committee on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology & Environment, and Secretary-General Spencer Oliver, a former aide to ex-Rep. Dante Fascell (D-Fla.), who was once the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Hastings hasn’t yet decided whether he will seek a second and final one-year term at next summer’s July meeting, saying he’s keeping his “options open.”

“I do have a constituency, and that is my highest priority,” he said. “This takes a lot of time away from them.”