Attention had to be paid. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress and generally one of the too-rare lawmakers who is actually beloved by her colleagues, had announced she was retiring. So the annual gala thrown by the organization she helped found, the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute, naturally turned its annual gala Wednesday night into a lovefest in honor of the Florida Republican.
From the stage of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, there were tear-jerking tributes from Ros-Lehtinen’s husband, Dexter, and their two children, as well as accolades from both sides of the aisle. The tables were packed with VIPs chowing down on the ropa vieja, including Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, U.S. Treasurer Jovita Carranza, White House officials and enough House members to constitute a quorum of some kind.
Since this was a Really Big Deal, organizers also brought in some imported ringers to add to the Washington lineup: Reality TV star and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner and actor Richard Gere both spoke about the woman each of them had come to know through their respective activism.
Jenner praised Ros-Lehtinen’s advocacy for the transgender community — the congresswoman was the first Republican in Congress to publicly support marriage equality, and she has criticized President Trump for reversing protections for transgender students that allowed them to use the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice. But policy aside, Jenner struck a more personal note: Ros-Lehtinen’s son, Rodrigo, is a transgender activist, and Jenner noted that her support for him was her most important contribution. “Her most important job, and I think she’d agree with me, is mom,” Jenner said.
“Transgendered kids … may be bullied in school, they may be a little different, but when they go home, [if] they go to a safe place and a loving family — that is by far the most important thing we can do for our kids,” she said. “So Ileana, I want to thank you for that.”
(When we spotted her before the dinner, Jenner didn’t want to wade into politics, but the Trump voter did have this to say about the president: “On trans issues, he’s been horrible.”)
Gere, an activist for Tibetan human rights who got to know the Florida lawmaker when she pushed through a bill to award the Dalai Lama the Congressional Gold Medal, also shared warm words about Ros-Lehtinen.
“She’s continually in motion, as you all know. She’s continually talking, as you all know,” he said. “But I get no sense that she’s gotta change the world today. She’s in it for the long run, and that’s how wonderful things happen.”
The actor had opened with a jab at his own Spanish-language skills — or lack thereof — and he got a big laugh when he asked the audience for a translation: “What’s the Spanish word for mensch?”
For her part, Ros-Lehtinen buzzed around the pre-dinner reception, a Cuba libre in hand (“I told them extra Coke, because I hear they make a strong drink”), greeting guests with kisses. She was unsentimental about her impending retirement: “You do something you love for so long … and one day you look around and go, ‘You know, this is good; I think I’m done,’ ” she said.
And of the evening’s “This is Your Life”-style treatment, she was self-effacing. “I’ve never had anything like this before,” she said. “It’s awesome and humbling.”