At half past five it was indeed a happy hour in the rapturous room of 2173 in the Rayburn building. Honorable Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was to unveil her Chairman of House Foreign Affairs Committee portrait, a position she held from 2011 to 2013. In front of an eager crowd of friends, family and supporters, Representative Ros-Lehtinen arrived with an aura of infectious energy. As former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi remarked, “as I look around this room, it’s like looking at the atlas of the world.” People of all regions from her home state of Florida to China, Cuba, Ukraine and Israel amassed to pay respects.
She does not cater to a certain type, but all types. The room was buzzing, on what would have been a normal Wednesday evening.
Dr. Yleem Poblete, former Staff Director, Chief of Staff, and childhood friend played the part of Master of Ceremonies.
Surprise Guest Speakers
Up to bat first was current House Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) to praise Chairman Emeritus Ros-Lehtinen. A woman “who broke the glass ceiling.” He enumerated the many firsts in her career: woman chairman of the committee, Hispanic congresswoman, and female baseball player on the congressional team, “she has broken so many barriers.” In his speech, it was evident Chairman Royce looks to continue the “invaluable legislative legacy,” Ros-Lehtinen passed down.
Former Speaker of the House Nancy Peolosi (D-CA) was among the other surprise speakers in support of Ros-Lehtinen as “an admirer, colleague, and girlfriend.” Girlfriends they are, working closely together and “melded many policies and legislative success”, despite being on two-sides of the spectrum.
An indication of Ros-Lehtinen’s ability to work with anyone and everyone, especially those across the aisle, were the people in the room. Representative Engel joked, “even when we have a holiday party we don’t get this many people.”
Honored member of the Ileana Ros-Lehtinen fan club House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) still looks to her for perspectives on foreign affairs. “It’s a tribute to her that so many people showed up,” Scalise articulates, “a testament to her work as a member of congress.”
Democratic State of Israel Ambassador Ron Dermer has an “enduring friendship” with Ros-Lehtinen as he too hails from Miami Beach. Dermer, donning a black knitted kippah, reminisces the days when Ros-Lehtinen was his congresswoman, “because of her character, because of her strength, and because of her conviction… made all of us in Miami proud.” After speaking on behalf of Miami he turned his attention to Israel, “on behalf of all my countryman…thank you Ileana for all your support for Israel.” Dermer continued, “there are many nations around the world whose ambassadors would like to stand here and thank Ileana.”
Partner and collaborator with Ros-Lehtinen on one of the strongest bills on the Assad regime in 2013, Elliot Engel (D-NY) started by personifying her “of what an effective member of congress should be.” Representative Engel asked, “what can’t you say about her?” He mentioned the skepticism some have had on certain bills passing, but with Ros-Lehtinen behind them, they do pass.
A man who “understood her at her core,” Dan Burton, now retired Republican House member of Indiana, noted “she is one of the best congresspersons I’ve ever met…deserving of all the accolades.”
All the surprise guests were a testament to Representative Ros-Lehtinen.
Reflections on the Legislator
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was unable to attend, but a brief video message was presented.
While most commented on the lighter softer side of Ros-Lehtinen, retired Democratic Congressman from California Howard Berman spoken of the “intense advocate for constituents and causes close to her.” He further mentioned, “there is no happy go luck Ileana when she’s engaged in those battles.”
“She’s for what she’s for…she represents the strength of people who love freedom,” Vice Chairman of the Republican Senate Roy Blunt (R-MO) concludes in his speech for Ros-Lehtinen. Representative Blunt was one of the legislator guest speakers.
The final speaker on behalf of the legislative body was the 54th Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI). The room seemed to stand still. The innocent idle chatter heard in the various corners of the room had ceased. There were no more clinging of glasses or clanging of plates. All attention was directed toward the podium from which he spoke.
“This is one impressive lady,” Ryan began, “and serves the best coffee on Capitol Hill.” Ryan continued with the many firsts others had elucidated and it was fitting this was his first portrait unveiling. Ryan’s elocution identified Ros-Lehtinen as a leader for freedom fighting, “part of leadership is being a witness,” a reference to Ros-Lehtinen’s childhood antecedents in Communist Cuba and overall overseer of world injustices. “She’s an American classic and I’m very proud to call her my friend.”
Partners in Freedom: Reflections on the Freedom Fighter
The next speakers were symbols of courage and testaments of resilience of the human spirit. Ros-Lehtinen is the US legislative mouthpiece for men and women oppressed by “rouge regimens.” The three men: David Mermelstein, Jorge Luis Garcia Perez and Harry Wu, “speak to Ileana’s essence.”
The first speaker, Vice President of US Foundation of Holocaust Survivors and survivor of Auschwitz David Mermelstein has a long history and friendship with Ros-Lehtinen dating back to her childhood in Miami. His daughter and Ros-Lehtinen were high school classmates. He was proud to see her grow into a strong and special truth speaker. “You can count on her…she is one of the most outspoken supporters of Israel,” Mr. Mermelstein declared. He recalled how Ros-Lehtinen was a person who “talked with us,” referring to the many Holocaust survivor conferences when people only talked about survivors.
She is unique. She suggested to the survivors that they speak for themselves on behalf of themselves rather than be represented.
One of the most passionate speakers was Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, who goes by the cognomen Antunez, gesticulating strongly with his fist in the air. He was detained in Castro’s gulags for 17 years.
He represents all on the island of Cuba who “yearn to be free and refuse to be silent.” Speaking in his native Spanish, Antunez spoke of his experiences in Cuba and of those like Ros-Lehtinen, who helped him. Through a translator, Antunez speaks about his public efforts pleading for a democratic change in Cuba. He still returns to Cuba to peacefully protest, but for a price. Before attending this ceremony he was detained along with his wife, Yris, and beaten by the Castro regime’s security detail. “Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a tribute for the oppressed people of the world,” Antunez brings to light a situation that often receives little public attention and Ros-Lehtinen is at the forefront.
The final reflection on the freedom fighter speaker was Harry Wu, Executive Director of the Laogai Research Foundation. For nearly twenty years, Mr. Wu was imprisoned in the laogai work camps that forced him to mine coal in harsh and dangerous conditions.
Representative Ros-Lehtinen and Mr. Wu have worked extensively building awareness and defending human rights in China. Mr. Wu encapsulates Ros-Lehtinen’s successes with a Chinese proverb, “big accomplishments come from an accumulation of little achievements made one at a time.”
Reflections on the Statesman
The last official speaker was Ileana’s husband, Dexter Lehtinen, a Vietnam combat veteran, a Purple Heart recipient, Florida state legislator, and U.S. attorney. He reiterated her “realistic approach toward foreign affairs dealing with the world as it is rather than a illusionary world.” As he spoke he directed his attention toward her, as if he were reaffirming his marriage vows. “She’s one of us…and loved because she’s one of us,” Dexter concludes before they embrace.
Before the unveiling, Representative Ros-Lehtinen addressed the crowd herself. She started back when she was eight and “didn’t speak English…critics will say I don’t have a very good command of it yet,” jesting to the crowd. There was a great deal of enthusiasm in her voice, as there always is. Her only regret was that her parents could not physically share the moment with her, but they were there in spirit. She thanked her friends, family, many colleagues, her daughter Patti, and husband or ‘hubby’ Dexter. After twenty-six years in congress she remarks the two tenets she has always held: serving her constituents and serving her “great nation, defending its interests, and upholding the founding principles that makes it a beacon of freedom especially for victims of oppression.”
Before she ended, she turned and pointed to Dante Fascell’s portrait, which also hangs in the hall. “[He] went to bat for me,” she remembers when Dante ensured her a seat in Congress, changing the ratios to place her on the committee. “I’m truly humbled,” Ros-Lehtinen ends with her mantra, “support our allies, work with international partners who value freedom…and give a voice to those who are persecuted.”
Finally, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wearing an emerald green jacket, along side her husband, daughter pulled the string to unveil her portrait. The portrait painted by immensely talented artist Bryan Drury, featured the same emerald jacket along with a framed picture of Cuban in the background on one side and an American flag on the other. Representative Ros-Lehtinen on first seeing the portrait quipped, “I think I know her” and then the celebration began, “let’s eat and let’s drink.”
L’haim, Representative Ros-Lehtinen.
Master of Ceremonies
Dr. Yleem Poblete
Former Staff Director and Chief of Staff, House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
Reflections on the Legislator
Honorable Newt Gingrich: Former Speaker of the House (Video Message)
Paul Ryan: Speaker of the House
Honorable Howard Berman: Former Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs
Senator Roy Blunt: Vice Chairman of the Senate Republican Conference and Former House Majority Whip
Reflections on the Freedom Fighter
David Mermelstein: Holocaust survivor and Vice President of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation
Jorge Luis Garcia Perez (Antunez): Cuban Resistance Leader and Former Prisoner of Conscious
Harry Wu: Executive Director of the Laogai Research Foundation and Former Prisoner of Conscious
Reflections on the Statesman
Honorable John Bolton: Former United States Ambassador to the United Nations and Former Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security
Honorable Dexter Lehtinen
Honorable Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
SPECIAL THANKS TO:
Ros-Lehtinen Portrait Committee:
Damiel I. Pedreira
All Aboard Florida
Mr. Joseph “Pepe” Badia
Ms. Julie Conway
The Honorable and Mrs. Lincoln and Cristina Diaz-Balart
Mr. and Mrs. Fausto Diaz and Remedios Diaz Oliver
Mr. and Mrs. Simon and Jana Falic
Holland and Knight
Mr. and Mrs. Roberto and Mercedes Isaias
Dr. and Mrs. Arthur and Belinda Keiser
Ms. Kathryn Lehman
Mr. and Mrs. Cherna Moskovitz
Mr. Igor Pasternak
Mr. and Mrs. Isaac and Irene Perez
Mr. and Mrs. Martyn and Sofia Perez
Ms. Cindy Stevens