With the final votes concluded before the House left town for the two week recess, Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was running 20 minutes late for a scheduled interview.
Her legislative director’s dog, Maya, an office staple for the past half-dozen years, roamed as staffers munched on a fried chicken lunch served in honor of the current intern crop. When Ros-Lehtinen emerged from a meeting room, where she’d been speaking with another reporter, a staffer informed her which reporter was next in line.
“This is Roll Call?” she asked, pointing at this seated scribe, who was sipping on a demitasse of Cuban coffee her aides had offered up. “Then who was that?”
Ros-Lehtinen is fielding numerous press inquiries these days thanks to her geographical and personal familiarity with two of the top 2016 Republican presidential contenders.
Not only do former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio hail from her home state, they also both live in Ros-Lehtinen’s district. And, long before being elected to their respective statewide positions, both previously worked for her. Bush was campaign manager on Ros-Lehtinen’s first congressional bid, a 1989 special election, and Rubio served as an intern in her Miami office in the early 1990s.
“They are both constituents, and I have very warm feelings toward both of them and have worked directly with them,” Ros-Lehtinen said in the March 26 interview as she folded into an armchair a few feet in front of her desk. “Marco was an intern, and Jeb helped me to become a member of Congress.”
The congresswoman, who was the first Cuban-American elected to the House, has previously spoken about Rubio’s “standout” performance in the junior role. She told CNN in 2013 that he “would do anything and everything that I asked interns to do, and willingly so, whether it was getting coffee or making copies, but mostly going with me to events. He was a real people person.”
She’s served with Rubio in Congress since his election to the Senate in 2010, but Ros-Lehtinen is backing Bush for the Republican presidential nomination. She’s one of just a handful of members of the delegation to pick sides so far.
“He was a great governor, has wonderful grass-roots support and is a policy guy with big ideas,” she said of Bush. “I think Marco and Jeb have many similar characteristics, and we’ve got an embarrassment of riches in Florida.”
At dinner a few months ago with Ana Navarro, a Republican operative and regular Sunday talk show guest, Ros-Lehtinen joked that she heard Bush had reached out to fellow Florida Republican Reps. Jeff Miller and Mario Diaz-Balart — but he hadn’t called her. Navarro quickly emailed Bush, and a few hours later he dialed up Ros-Lehtinen.
“I said, ‘No, I was just kidding about that. And as you know, Jeb, I’m already with you,'” she said.
Before his first bid for governor in 1994 — he was elected to the first of two terms four years later — Bush, a real estate developer, served as chairman of the Dade County GOP and was appointed state commerce secretary. After working on his father’s presidential campaign in 1988, the following summer Bush joined Ros-Lehtinen’s special election campaign to replace longtime Democratic Rep. Claude Pepper, who had died.
Newspaper reports at the time referred to Bush interchangeably as her campaign chairman or manager. Ros-Lehtinen told CQ Roll Call Bush was the manager and handled strategy, but it was her father who ran the campaign day to day. Bush became an active surrogate for the then-state senator, going on Spanish radio and appearing on her behalf at events around the district.
Bush also helped bring in loads of cash, including a major fundraiser in Miami with the sitting president, getting his dad to detour south on his way to a vacation in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Ros-Lehtinen’s campaign against Democrat Gerald Richman divided along ethnic lines, thanks in part to Richman’s oft-repeated and controversial campaign slogan, “This is an American seat.” That helped Ros-Lehtinen and Republicans encourage Hispanic voters to turn out. After Richman won the Democratic primary runoff, Ros-Lehtinen declined to debate him, refusing to stand on the same stage.
She ended up winning 53 percent to 47 percent in the longtime Democratic district, where Pepper’s death and demographic changes finally gave Republicans a chance. As The Washington Post reported at the time, Dade County saw a near-record 40 percent turnout for the special, with Hispanics making up 60 percent of the electorate.
“I was glad to have people like Jeb around me,” Ros-Lehtinen said in the interview. “It was a calming voice in a nasty campaign, and he settled a lot of nerves.”
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