Since my election in 1989 to the United States Congress, I have proudly represented Floridaï¿½s 18th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives. Forced to flee with my family from the oppressive communist regime of Fidel Castro, I became the first Hispanic woman and first Cuban-American elected to Congress.
Throughout my life, I have been dedicated to serving our community. After completing public education in Miami and graduating from Miami-Dade Community College, I followed my passion for education and earned a Bachelors of Arts in Education from Florida International University. I then founded and served as the principal and teacher of a private bilingual elementary school in Hialeah. My passion for education continued while completing a Masters in Educational Leadership at FIU, and earning a Doctorate of Higher Education from the University of Miami.
Understanding the issues facing South Florida, I was elected in 1982 to the Florida State House of Representatives, becoming the first Hispanic woman in that body. In 1986, I was elected to the Florida State Senate in 1986. While serving, I met and married fellow Florida legislator Dexter Lehtinen, who became the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. We have two children, Amanda Michelle and Patricia Marie, and two step-children, Katharine and Douglas.
When the 18th Congressional District seat was vacated by the passing of Claude Pepper in 1989, I won the seat, and have been strongly returned to Congress since, winning 62% of the vote in 2006.
<strong>A Powerful Voice for South Florida</strong>
I have been a strong leader in the United States Congress, fighting to advance the needs of South Florida and ensuring that the nation continues to prosper. Addressing the needs of the unique community in South Florida, I have worked so our precious ecosystems are preserved for future generations to enjoy. I have consistently opposed any efforts to drill off Floridaï¿½s coasts.
In addition to preventing offshore drilling, I have fought to secure in excess of $27 million to provide for the dredging of the Miami River, ensuring that the river remains a vibrant natural resource. This important project removes contaminated materials from the river, protecting coral reefs and other important marine life in Biscayne Bay.
I have voted consistently on helping homeowners not lose their homes during this period of market uncertainty. I voted in favor of the American Housing Rescue and Foreclosure Prevention Act, which recently passed the House. This legislation provides mortgage refinancing assistance to keep families from losing their homes, protects neighboring home values, and helps stabilize the housing market. I also supported the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund Act. This bill establishes a national affordable housing trust fund to build or preserve over a million homes over the next decade. Increasing the supply of affordable housing will help ensure that South Florida families who have lost their homes can find housing.
I voted in favor of the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008. This bi-partisan legislation was enacted as an effort to reinvigorate the economy and help hard-working South Floridians who are struggling with rising costs of fuel and groceries. I have worked hard to lower the burden of high taxes on families so that they can keep more of their money. I have supported legislation to lower the income tax rate, eliminate the death tax and reduce the marriage penalty tax. I have cosponsored the 401Kids Family Savings Act to allow tax-free distributions from a Coverdell education savings account for first-time homebuyer expenses and permit rollovers from Coverdell education savings accounts to Roth individual retirement accounts. I also cosponsored the Financial Security Accounts for Individuals with Disabilities Act to establish tax-exempt financial security accounts for individuals with disabilities to pay certain expenses of such individuals, including expenses for education, medical care, and employment training.
Given the importance of the Port of Miami to the South Florida economy, and its position as the gateway to the Americas, it is vital that the port receives the security it requires to meet the challenges of the 21st century. I have fought to bring attention to the critical needs of our ports, which are high priority targets for those who aiming to inflict chaos on the United States. Working with the County, Port of Miami officials and the State of Florida, I have ensured that the cargo facilities are equipped with security resources to keep this important piece of infrastructure safe, in turn protecting the local community and the economy.
As a former educator, I have has been a strong voice for addressing the education needs of our community. While in the Florida Senate, I introduced legislation to create Floridaï¿½s first Pre-Paid College Tuition Plan. This plan has enabled students to attend college, equipping them with the resources to reach their highest ambitions. Without this plan, many of these students would have been denied this opportunity. Continuing my support for the education of our future leaders, I recently voted in favor the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act. This will give the Department of Education the authority to purchase student loans from lenders, increase the unsubsidized Stafford loan limit, and provided an optional grace period so that parents can defer certain loan payments until after their children graduate.
I have been a strong advocate of programs that address the serious problem of violence against women. As a co-sponsor of H.R. 2876, which reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, I sent a strong message to the community that violence against women is unacceptable, and ensured that programs to address this problem continued to be funded into the future.
<strong>A Strong Commitment to Foreign Affairs</strong>
I am the Ranking Member on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Serving in this role, I have been a tireless advocate for the advancement of human rights across the globe, as well as continuing to be a strong voice in opposition to Castroï¿½s dictatorial regime in Cuba. This marks a long involvement in foreign affairs, having previously served as Chair of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia, the Subcommittee on Africa, the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights and as Vice-Chair on the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.