You began your career as a teacher. How did this role prepare you for a lifetime of public service?
I loved my career as a teacher, and it prepared me for my work in public service by giving me the skills necessary to relate to a variety of people and break down sometimes complicated ideas into commonsense language. As a teacher, I always have the passion to learn. In Congress, you must learn to navigate the process and mechanics to get results for the people who put you in office.
As a teacher, I helped many hard-working families with questions and problems, and, as a public servant, it has been the most rewarding part of my career helping my South Florida community— not only on a community level but also on a personal level for each constituent who knocked on my door asking for help.
What motivated you to run for Congress?
Public service began to be a realistic possibility for me when, as the principal of a small private school in a working-class neighborhood, I began to help individual families with their problems.
My “aha” moment was when I realized that instead of helping on a case-by-case basis, I could help many more families in South Florida by setting policy that would impact more individuals.
One of the legislative priorities that I am most proud of is the Florida Prepaid College Tuition Program. I introduced the legislation that created this program that has helped over 1 million families afford a college education for their kids. That legislation impacted the entire State of Florida, so, when a seat for Congress became available, I knew I could do much more on a national scale. I was a Cuban American immigrant who spoke no English when I arrived with my parents to this generous country. Now I get to have a voice in shaping U.S. foreign policy.
You are a trailblazer—the first Hispanic woman to ever serve in Congress. Were you met with doubts and obstacles when you announced your run? How did you respond to those that doubted you?
You know, I didn’t even realize that I was the first Hispanic woman in Congress until Katie Couric told me on the TODAY show the morning after the election. I didn’t believe her, but she was right. I’m sure that others in that race who were male, perhaps with more political experience than me, had doubts. But, from the moment I decided to run for elected office, I was in it to win it. I work hard, follow my instincts and rely on those around me – like my parents and my husband and children – who always supported me. If I had known of or focused on the high bar I had to live up to or the doubts of others, I’d never do anything.
My advice: run your own race, be your own person, work hard and honorably.
Congress still has a long way to go before gender equality is achieved. What do our leaders in government need to do in order to support women in public service?
We need more women to run! At every level of government, we would benefit from more women in public service – especially young women. Yes, leaders can take an active role in recruitment but no one recruited me for my first campaign. My advice to young women everywhere consists of one word: start.
During your time in Congress, you worked to address the serious problem of violence against women. Tell us about the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, a bill that you lead-sponsored.
There is just no question that imposing stiffer penalties – including civil ones – for violence against women was necessary to help keep more women safe. Women have made great strides, but, in parts of our country, they face higher incidences of violence and abuse than in others. That’s just unacceptable. Anyone who commits an act of violence against a woman should face the severest penalty the law provides for.
You also supported Americans serving in the military and veterans. Thanks to legislation you authored, Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), who served in our military in WWII, were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Why is this important?
My husband, Dexter, volunteered for service in Vietnam and was severely wounded in combat. My stepson, Doug, and daughter-in-law, Lindsay, were marine aviators in Iraq, and Lindsay also served in Afghanistan, so veterans’ issues quite literally hit close to home for me. The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) were incredible women who flew non-combat missions during World War II. They helped make our nation’s war effort successful, just as much as any male pilot, and we owed it to these trailblazers to honor their commitment and courage.
You were also the first GOP member of Congress to back marriage equality. What motivated you to leave party lines behind and take a stance on this issue?
This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. The essence of marriage is two people who love each other and are committed to each other. LGBT Americans should have the same rights as anyone else and have equal treatment under the law.
What are you going to do on your first day of retirement?
I haven’t thought of it but I’ll probably read the first chapter of a book and then want to launch into my next project. What that will be, I’m not sure but I know whatever it is will be new and exciting.
A record number of women are running for office across the country in 2018. What message do you have for these aspiring women?
Run. Do it. Your community needs you. Your nation needs you. We all need to be part of the solution and help ensure our country’s best days are ahead of it.