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Cuban-Americans, GOP Celebrate Winning Claude Pepper’s Congressional Seat

August 30, 1989 GMT

MIAMI (AP) _ Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s election to Congress after an ethnically divisive campaign for the late Claude Pepper’s seat was celebrated Wednesday as a first for Cuban-Americans and a Southern milestone for the GOP.

″The Cubans won 3/8″ salsa singer Celia Cruz shouted in Spanish as she led Ms. Ros-Lehtinen’s supporters in a victory party early Wednesday following the Republican’s win over Gerald Richman.

Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, a 37-year-old educator and state senator, promised to work to heal the wounds left by the contest, which ended Tuesday with voting along ethnic lines.

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″I think it’s been a terribly divisive ... campaign,″ she said on NBC’s ″Today″ show. The special election was made necessary by Pepper’s death May 30 at 88. Pepper, a Democrat, had held the seat since its creation in 1962.

Riding heavy Hispanic turnout, the Havana-born Republican received 49,638 votes, or 53 percent, to 43,759 votes, or 47 percent, for Richman, a 38-year- old, Brooklyn-born attorney making his first bid for elective office.

Ms. Ros-Lehtinen said Richman, who carried the black and non-Latin white vote by about 90 percent, had spurred Hispanics by making them feel as if ″we might be second-class Americans because we’re naturalized Americans.″

″But now it’s time for healing, now we have to reach out to all those sections,″ she said.

Richman didn’t rule out seeking the seat again in the next scheduled election in 14 months but promised to try to help his opponent to ″unify the community.″

Ms. Ros-Lehtinen’s swearing-in in Washington is expected to take place early next month.

Cubans, who began Latinizing Miami after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, have achieved a number of firsts this decade: mayor of Miami, a majority on the City Commission, county manager and city manager.

During the campaign, Ms. Ros-Lehtinen refused to debate Richman for declaring, ″This is an American seat″ - a remark that many claimed was anti- Hispanic.

Richman said the remark was an appeal to voters to decide according to candidates’ qualifications, not birthplace. He also said he was responding to GOP National Chairman Lee Atwater’s statement that the party wanted to elect a Cuban-American.

Atwater charged Richman with misusing his remark. ″It was unfortunate that something said over three months ago was taken totally out of context and used divisively by the Richman campaign,″ he said. ″I think they paid the price for it.″

Atwater expressed delight at the GOP’s latest Southern success; the party picked up a seat held by a liberal Democrat for 27 years and won its first congressional victory in Dade County.

″For us to win it is a major victory,″ Atwater said. ″(Democratic Chairman) Ron Brown was saying it was their seat, it was the gateway to the South.″

The GOP added to its unprecedented majority, now 11-8, in Florida’s House delegation.

The campaign by Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, who is married to U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen, included appearances by President Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle. Her campaign chairman was the president’s son Jeb.

In Washington, anti-abortion activists claimed Ms. Ros-Lehtinen’s election proves that their movement is ″alive and well″ in the wake of the Supreme Court’s July 3 decision narrowing the right to an abortion.

During the campaign, Ms. Ros-Lehtinen said she favored more restrictions on abortion and Richman said he favored more choice.