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Cuban-American to head House Foreign Affairs

By Laura Wides-munoz

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Nov. 27 2010 1:55 a.m. MST

MIAMI — She hung up on the next president, Barack Obama. Twice. She thought it was a prank.

In an expert stroke of political spin, she immediately sent out a press release explaining the apparent snub as a mix-up.

Meet Florida U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Cuban-American to serve in Congress and the next in line to head the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The phone incident occurred in late 2008 as the president-elect reached out to potentially friendly Republicans and shortly after a radio host fooled Sarah Palin by impersonating the president of France on the phone. But it was vintage "Ily," as she is known in Washington: frank, almost irreverent, yet imbued with an underlying seriousness and political savvy.

It also was a reminder that Ros-Lehtinen, 58, presents an increasingly rare image these days — a politician occasionally willing to work across the aisle. The legislator, who was re-elected with 69 percent of the vote, is a hawk on foreign affairs but breaks with her party on immigration, gay rights and other issues important to the people she represents — Cuban-Americans, gays, a strong Jewish community.

California Democrat Howard Berman, who will surrender the Foreign Affairs Committee chairmanship in January, cautioned those who mistake Ros-Lehtinen's enthusiasm and pleasantness for weakness.

"People greatly underestimate her skill and tenaciousness," he said.

Under her watch, the committee is expected to push for stepped-up sanctions against North Korea and Iran, more oversight of the U.N. and a block on any dialogue with Cuba. As a strong abortion foe, Ros-Lehtinen also may try to chip away at the president's executive order allowing foreign aid for international groups that provide information about abortion services.

"I think she is going to be very active on Latin America and oversight, making sure the administration is enforcing sanctions," Berman said.

Ros-Lehtinen fled Cuba with her family at age 7. She taught elementary school, then started running her own school. She was in the Florida Legislature for six years before winning election to the U.S. House in 1989, her bid brokered by legendary Cuban-American political king-maker Jorge Mas Canosa. She completed her doctorate in education while serving in Congress.

The mother of two children and two stepchildren with her husband, former U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen, is still best known for her staunch support of the U.S embargo against the communist island.

"I welcome the opportunity of having anyone assassinate Fidel Castro," she told an interviewer in a 2006 British documentary.

Ros-Lehtinen is outraged by Cuba's membership on the United Nation's Human Rights Council along with China and Saudi Arabia and would like U.S. contributions to the U.N. to be voluntary until the U.S. creates an office to audit U.N. activities for transparency and eliminate waste.

"The U.N. functions very well for Iran and Venezuela, and every two-bit dictator who's envious and hates the United States," she told The Associated Press. "But for countries that contribute a lot to the U.N., I don't think people really feel like it's really living up to the standards which we set for it at it's founding."

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and 2012 presidential hopeful, lauds Ros-Lehtinen for bringing a strong anti-communist and anti-dictator position to her analyses. "She will bring clarity," he predicts.

Critics counter that she has too much of an "us versus them" mentality that doesn't allow for gray areas when it comes to those who don't always agree with the U.S.

"She looks more to converting," said Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank.

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