Miami Community Hopes for Healing After Divisive Election Runoff

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the newly elected U.S. representative to Congress and its first Cuban-American, now faces the challenge of uniting an ethnically diverse South Florida community, after an election runoff against a Jewish candidate that several local leaders believe polarized the Hispanic, black, Jewish and Anglo communities.

Jewish and political leaders said last week that they hope the ethnic groups in Miami will come together as a community now that the campaign is over.

The Republican Ros-Lehtinen, who received 49,638 votes, or 53 percent of the total in the Aug. 29 election, was expected to host a meeting with community leaders “to discuss the future and set a course,” said Wendy Donath, Ros-Lehtinen’s campaign press secretary. “Ileana is hopeful and optimistic that the community can unite.”

This is an attempt to heal wounds caused by a series of campaign tactics used by both candidates which were criticized by many as ethnically divisive. The runoff election was held to fill the seat of the late Claude Pepper, who had represented the 18th Congressional District since 1962.

The Republican Gerald Richman, 48, who garnered 43,759 votes, or 47 percent, said he is still upset that his “American seat” campaign theme was misinterpreted and used to turn the Hispanic community against non-Hispanics.

Richmond’s original cmpaign slogan was “This is an American seat,” which was later watered down to a seat “for all the people.”

During the campaign, Ros-Lehtinen called Richman’s comment “bigotry.”

In her own campaign, Ros-Lehtinen, 37, mailed a brochure which said, “We want Richman to understand . . . we, too, are Americans. No, we weren’t born in Brooklyn, N.Y., like him. No, we don’t speak English the same way he does.”

CAMPAIGN PRACTICES CRITICIZED

Both Richman’s campaign theme and Ros-Lehtinen’s brochure were criticized by the Fair Campaign Practices Committee in Dade County.

Donath, Ros-Lehtinen’s press secretary, would not discuss the brochure when contacted by telephone. “We’re looking ahead. Enough has been said about the campaign.”

Ros-Lehtinen could not be reached for comment.

Arthur Teitelbaum, Southern area director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, called the campaign a “tragically divisive political experience that has left a temporary wreckage which needs repairing.

“But that does not and must not be the way Jews and Cubans define their relationship in the future,” he added.

“The community was split down the middle,” said Andrew Rosenblatt, executive director of the Fair Campaign Practice Committee. “I don’t know if the election was seen as the Jews versus the Cubans, as much as the Hispanics versus the non-Hispanics.”

Rosenblatt blamed the problem on candidates who were “more concerned with personal political gain than maintaining the fragile unity of this community. We must take immediate steps to join together and close these wounds.”

William Gralnick, Southeast regional director of the American Jewish Committee, said part of the problem is simply that Ros-Lehtinen, a conservative, and Jews, who tend to be liberal, disagree on a variety of domestic issues.

“But we plan to meet with her and begin to go over those areas,” he said.

Gralnick said he fears “lingering resentment both on the grass-roots level and in leadership of her campaign.”

But Howard Schloss, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, believes “the wounds will heal and they shouldn’t have real long-lasting effects on the community.”

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