Heard on the Hill

Why Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has hope for the GOP

Party becoming ‘more tolerant and more accepting,’ says former congresswoman and mom of transgender son

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen says she’s learned a lot from her son Rodrigo. (Courtesy Ileana Ros-Lehtinen)

“Oh, a leaf blower? I’m gonna be right there!” Ileana Ros-Lehtinen shouted cheerfully. She wasn’t hollering at her husband or a sales rep at Home Depot, but at her 3-year-old grandson Dustin, who sounded like he had something very important to show her.

I caught up with the former congresswoman Friday by phone while she was vacationing in the North Carolina mountains with her stepson, daughter-in-law, a handful of grandkids and, of course, the family dog. (By the sound of a bustling full house on the other end of the line, I doubt there would’ve been room for me in person anyway.)

“We have a lot next door, but we don’t want to build on it, because we like to mooch off our friends,” the Florida Republican joked.

A year ago Ros-Lehtinen was on a smaller kind of mountain — the “Hill,” if you will. While she stepped away from her legislative perch after three decades in the House, she’s not done with Washington yet. She’s since signed on with Akin Gump, a D.C.-based lobbying firm. And she’s using her leverage in less lucrative ways, championing the issues she cares about — especially LGBTQ and transgender rights.

That wasn’t always the case. Do a quick search and you’ll find that in the early ’90s Ros-Lehtinen was in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined matrimony as a union between one man and one woman. Nearly two decades later she had a change of heart, co-sponsoring legislation to repeal it. The flip may have stung her more conservative colleagues, but the first Latina and Cuban-American elected to Congress wasn’t fazed by being in the minority.

What prompted the switch? In part it was her son Rodrigo (or Rigo for short), who in 2007 told his parents he’s a transgender man. Recently hired as a deputy executive director at the National Center for Transgender Equality, he doesn’t share his mom’s Republican views. But Ros-Lehtinen told me the political differences at home were a nonissue. “Everybody has the right to their own opinions,” she said. “We’re proud of all our kids.”

Former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen with her husband, Dexter, and their kids, Patty and Rigo in D.C. last year. (Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen)
Former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen with her husband, Dexter, and their kids, Patty and Rigo in D.C. last year. (Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen)

The change of heart, though rooted in a personal connection, was also pragmatic, tracking the “natural evolution” of the country, she said. Despite the initial reluctance to adopt marriage equality as the norm, “people saw that the sun still went up the next morning,” she said.

In her last weeks in office, Ros-Lehtinen blasted her party for losing ground when it came to diversity. “We’re actually going backward,” she told NPR in December. “Minorities did not see us as a welcoming voice.”

But at least one piece of legislation this year has given her reason to hope — the Equality Act, which seeks to protect LGBTQ Americans from discrimination. It passed in the House with eight Republicans on board, including fellow Floridian Mario Diaz-Balart.

Today Ros-Lehtinen seems hopeful that the GOP is becoming “more tolerant and more accepting.” Among her new roles is co-chair of Conservatives Against Discrimination, an advocacy campaign that aims to unite Republicans around LGBTQ rights.

Despite the challenges, Ros-Lehtinen loved “every minute of serving in Congress,” she said. “And I love what I’m doing right now.” And with that, she had a leaf blower to get back to.