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South Florida's Best and Brightest
Originally published: Wednesday, June 1, 2011 (12:01:02 a.m. ET)

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
United States Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. (Photo courtesy of United States Congress).
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
In 1989, she became the first Hispanic woman ever elected to the United States Congress, and she hasn't relinquished her position for the last 22 years, a period that has spanned a dozen election cycles. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is so well-respected by her constituency (the 18th District of Florida, which includes Miami, Little Havana, Coral Gables, Pinecrest, Miami Beach, Westchester, and the Keys) that her seat in the House of Representatives never has been seriously challenged in all that time. She likely garners the most deference among her peers for the concern she shows for the welfare of military personnel, and as such, she is the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The list of professional awards bestowed upon Ros-Lehtinen is gigantic, occupying pages and pages of her website. It includes recognition and commendation from schools, charities, hospitals, civic and cultural organizations, environmental groups, and civil liberties programs, among others.

Q: What advice would you give youngsters who want to embark on a career in your industry?
A: I'm asked that question a lot and I always say to get an education. You never know where you're going to end up, and the best thing you can to do to plan for your future is to not quit school, to go to college and improve your education. That's a good solid foundation. Whether you end up going to law school or graduate school, don't quit, keep going, and that will open up a lot of avenues. Because you'll meet different people and you'll come into contact with different situations. It will make you a better person. A solid education is what I'd say to someone who wanted to be in my public service field. And a wonderful way to improve our community is to do volunteer work. We certainly need a lot more angels all around us.

Q: Of what professional accomplishment are you most proud?
A: Even though I've loved my time in Congress and I think we've worked on important issues, I would say that being in the Florida State Senate and creating the Florida Prepaid Tuition Program with my friend, Sen. Curtis Peterson of Lakeland. That's probably my proudest achievement. But I don't want someone to look at that and say, 'Oh, my God, she has done anything for 22 years.' We've done a lot of good things, advancing human rights, and the cause for democracy, so I'm proud of my work there. But my answer would have to be creating the Prepaid College Tuition Program, which I hope will not run into funding problems in the legislature and will keep going. It's the most successful prepaid program in the nation.

Q: What's the most challenging part about your work?
A: Balancing career and family, just like for anybody in any job, especially women. But the fact that I work outside of the [Miami], outside of my home for so many days out of the week, makes it that much more of a challenge. I'm gone at least four days a week, every week, in Washington, D.C., except for the weeks that we have district work period, and I work a lot during the weeks that I'm here. But I think that trying to find that balance is tough. I don't know who has the answer, who has the magic formula. I'm still trying to find it. It's hard to get.

Q: What did you envision doing for a living when you were growing up?
A: I never, ever would have thought I would be a member of Congress. No one in my family was in political office, and no one had even talked about it. I always wanted to be a teacher and that's what I became. I became a Florida certified teacher, and I loved every minute of teaching. One day, I hope to get back to it. That gives me a lot of pleasure, and that's why, when I'm home, I like to speak to kids in the schools. They have a lot of tough challenges in this generation. I never would have imagined that I'd be in politics. I never ran for student council or student government when I was in junior high school or high school or college. Nothing even remotely like that. You never know what life and God have in store for you.

Q: In ten years' time, I will be _________________.
A: I think I will be teaching somewhere. I would love to go back to Miami-Dade Community College, where I got my Associates of Arts degree. I'd love to teach on the community college level, or really just teach anywhere. It's a great opportunity to mold the minds of the next generation. Or maybe do a radio show about education. Education always has been my passion. I'll get back to it one day.

Q: Who are/were your professional role models and why?
A: I know this doesn't quite fit in as 'professional' role models, but my mom and dad have been the perfect role models for my whole life because they lost everything they had when [Fidel] Castro took over in Cuba. They came to the United States and worked humble jobs. My mom worked in a hotel on Miami Beach, putting out desserts for rich tourists. My dad worked for a laundry picking up people's dirty clothes in homes. Even though they kept up the fight for a free Cuba, they said that Miami was their home and they're thankful to God for giving us this opportunity. And even though my dad had a degree from Cuba, he graduated from Miami-Dade Community College and the University of Miami, all the time working full-time jobs. My mom passed away two months ago from complications from Alzheimer's disease. But we think of her every day and honor her memory. Dedicating yourself to improving the lives of those around you is a good legacy that she left for me.

Q: If you could do anything else in the world for a living, what would it be?
A: I've got the perfect gig already. This is the best job that anyone could ever have. I'm greatly honored that people have trusted me with their votes to be in D.C., fighting all the good fights. So I wouldn't want any other job. But, if and when I retire, I would like to go back to teaching. This is the best opportunity to help people. We help people with immigration and with Social Security and Medicare and veteran's benefits, and that gives me great satisfaction. And then I go to D.C., and see that lit-up dome, and I say I can't believe they let me in this place.

Q: What's the best part about your job?
A: Coming home, always. Landing at Miami International Airport and getting in my car and getting to see my family.

Q: What's the worst part about your job?
A: Taking off. Leaving Miami. I've got such a great district. I've got all of Miami Beach, and down to the [Florida] Keys. I was in Key West last Saturday and I'll be there again next Saturday. Now, I'm there working; I'm not lounging around at the beach. But I'm just so reminded of how blessed I am to have such a beautiful district. I've got Little Havana, Coconut Grove, and Key Biscayne.

Q: What's the one most important thing that experience has taught you?
A: Never say the word 'never.' Keep your words short and sweet. Don't use phrases like, "I will never vote for that bill," or "I will always support this idea." Because as time goes on, circumstances change and you'll find yourself eating your words. Be careful what you say because you have to be true to your words. If you say it, you better comply with it. The first President Bush didn't learn that lesson with "Read my lips." If you say it, you gotta do it.

Q: What's the best career advice anyone has imparted on you?
A: When I first got to Congress, [Rep.] Dante Fascell said to me about bathrooms, 'Don't ever pass one up.' I always thought that was the greatest advice, but I don't know if he was kidding or not. He said LBJ gave him that advice. I'd say the best advice I ever got is that everything depends on your perspective. Someone can look at a door and say that it's shut; another person can say, 'Here's a door I can walk through and into another opportunity.'

Q: What one thing would you do different/better if you could start it all over again?
A: I really don't think anything can be accomplished by looking back. But every day is a new opportunity. So even if you can't change what went on in your past, you can make a new beginning and you can make a new future. I never have that "coulda, woulda, or shoulda" thinking. I always think that tomorrow I'll have a new opportunity. In the next minute, I'll have a new opportunity, so don't waste it.

Q: What's your favorite South Florida charity?
A: The Sunrise Community. My best friend has two children who are autistic, and they live part-time at the Sunrise Community. They are living and learning facilities all over Miami-Dade County. They are group homes for special needs children, young adults, and adults. It's a wonderful organization, and I'm going to be attending their big fundraiser on May 21 at the Intercontinental Hotel.
Archive: 20 Good Questions
Best & Brightest: June 2011