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1989 Florida's 18th congressional district special election

A special election to determine the member of the United States House of Representatives for Florida's 18th congressional district was held on August 29, 1989. Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen defeated Democrat Gerald Richman in the runoff vote, 53.14% to 46.85%. Ros-Lehtinen replaced Claude Pepper, who died in office from stomach cancer.

Florida's 18th congressional district special election, 1989

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Florida's 18th congressional district
  Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (7023723393).jpg 3x4.svg
Nominee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Gerald Richman
Party Republican Democratic
Popular vote 49,638 43,759
Percentage 53.14% 46.85%

U.S. Representative before election

Claude Pepper

Elected U.S. Representative

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Changing demographics in Florida's 18th congressional district had moved the largely white district into a 40% Cuban American district. The election campaign followed this trend as the campaign was dominated by discussions of race after Republican National Chairman Lee Atwater declared that the district should become the "Cuban American seat". Democrat Gerald Richman ran a campaign with the slogan "This is an American seat" in response to Atwater's comments, and both Ros-Lehtinen and Richman appealed to their respective racial bases in the general. Ros-Lehtinen won a competitive campaign to flip the seat, and became the first Cuban American to serve in Congress.


United States Congressman Claude Pepper died in office from stomach cancer on May 30, 1989 after serving in the House for over a quarter century, opening up a special election to fill his seat.[1][2] Pepper had previously served as a U.S. Senator from Florida as well and was seen as a lion of the U.S. Congress.[2] Pepper's reputation and length of service had insulated him from the racial splits that existed in his district, and The New York Times noted that he had been able to bridge the gap inside of the district.[3] The district had moved from a largely white district into a 40% Cuban American district.[3] Florida Governor Bob Martinez announced the special election schedule the day after Pepper's burial.[4]

Republican PrimaryEdit




Early coverage on the Republican primary named State Senator Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as the favorite to win the Republican nomination.[5] Jeb Bush managed Ros-Lehtinen's campaign.[6] After Pepper's death, Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater declared that the seat should become a "Cuban American seat" and immediately caused controversy with the comment.[5] Challengers other than Ros-Lehtinen included: Carlos Perez, a business owner who had been highlighted in Ronald Reagan's State of the Union address; David Fleischer, an insurance broker who decided to run after Atwater's comments; and John Stembridge, a furniture store owner who claimed that Pepper "was like an adopted father to me and I felt like he was personally grooming me to take his place".[5]

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen won the primary with more than 80% of the vote, winning every precinct and avoiding a runoff.[2] "We're quite humbled and really flabbergasted," Ros-Lehtinen said at her surprise of winning the primary by such a wide margin.[2]

Republican primary results[7]
Party Candidate Votes %
Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen 16,873 82.80
Republican Carlos Perez 2,251 11.05
Republican David Fleischer 691 3.39
Republican John Stembridge 563 2.76
Total votes 20,578 100

Democratic PrimaryEdit




The Democratic primary was much more chaotic than the Republican one.[8] After Lee Atwater announced that the district should become a "Cuban American seat", early Democratic favorite Jack Gordon dropped out after two days, stating that he refused to run a campaign that would have to be about "stopping the Cubans".[5] Rosario Kennedy, a Miami City Commissioner, was handicapped as the initial favorite.[8][5] In a first-round upset, Gerald Richman, the former President of the Florida Bar, beat Kennedy by 146 votes.[9] Both advanced to the runoff.[9]

The runoff campaign was dominated by controversial discussions of race.[9][8] Richman repeatedly said, "This is an American seat" in reaction to Atwater's comments.[9] Jo Ann Pepper, Marvin Dunn, and Sonny Wright, who split the African American neighborhoods in the district, all endorsed Kennedy.[8] The Miami Herald endorsed Kennedy and called Richman's campaign "naked, deliberate, bigotry".[8] Richman easily won the runoff over Kennedy, dominating in white and Jewish neighborhoods.[8] The results split starkly among racial lines and after Richman's win, Kennedy refused to endorse him.[9]

Democratic primary results[7]
Party Candidate Votes %
Democratic Gerald Richman 5,794 27.98
Democratic Rosario Kennedy 5,635 27.21
Democratic Jo Ann Pepper 5,071 24.49
Democratic Marvin Dunn 1,713 8.27
Democratic Sonny Wright 1,516 7.32
Democratic Bernard "Bernie" Anscher 703 3.39
Democratic John Paul Rosser 280 1.35
Total votes 21,868 100
Democratic runoff results[10]
Party Candidate Votes %
Democratic Gerald Richman 14,411 60.97
Democratic Rosario Kennedy 9,226 39.03
Total votes 23,640 100

General ElectionEdit

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen speaks in 1989 after her successful election.

The racial themes from both primaries continued throughout the general election.[11] Richman's campaign came under continued fire for his "This is an American seat" slogan, while Ros-Lehtinen's campaign was criticized for a Spanish language brochure which emphasized Richman's Jewish religion.[11][3] Richman spent more than $300,000 of his own money on his campaign.[11] Ros-Lehtinen called Richman and his campaign bigoted and refused to appear at any debates or events with him.[12] A poll by The Miami Herald found that 28 out of every 29 Cuban American voters supported Ros-Lehtinen while 24 of every 25 Jewish voters supported Richman, regardless of normal political ideology and leanings.[3] National Republicans came to support Ros-Lehtinen, including President George H. W. Bush who hosted a fundraiser for her campaign and appeared jointly with her.[11]

Ros-Lehtinen won the seat with a six point margin, 53 to 47 percent. Voter turnout matched strongly with ethnic lines.[11] According to exit polling, approximately 60 percent of the district's Hispanic voters turned out, while only 40 percent of the Anglos and 34 percent of the African Americans.[11] Ileana Ros-Lehtinen became the first Latina and the first Cuban American to serve in Congress after this victory.[11] After the election, the Anti-Defamation League called for a "healing process" for the communities of the district and described the election as a "dark moment".[13] Both campaigns were censured by the Fair Campaigns Practices Committee, a watchdog group, for the racially tinged campaigns they ran.[11]

Special election results[11]
Party Candidate Votes % ±
Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen 49,638 53.14% +53.14%
Democratic Gerald Richman 43,759 46.85% -53.14%
Total votes 93,397 100.0%
Majority 5,874 6.29%
Republican gain from Democratic Swing 53.14%


  1. ^ Thomas, Reginald (May 31, 1989). "Claude Pepper, Fiery Fighter For Elderly Rights, Dies at 88". The New York Times. Retrieved March 9, 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d Associated Press (August 2, 1989). "Florida Primary Won By a Cuban-American". The New York Times. Retrieved March 9, 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Schmalz, Jeffrey (August 29, 1989). "Ethnic Split Fuels Miami Campaign". The New York Times. Retrieved March 9, 2018.
  4. ^ Associated Press (June 7, 1989). "Cuban-American expected to replace Pepper" (PDF). The Palm Beach Post. Retrieved March 9, 2018 – via  
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Bell, Maya (July 9, 1989). "Who can fill Claude Pepper's seat?" (PDF). The Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved March 9, 2018 – via  
  6. ^ Adams, David; Simon, Stephanie (June 25, 2012). "Jeb Bush: Party elder statesman or 2016 candidate?". Reuters. Retrieved March 9, 2018.
  7. ^ a b Yanez, Luisa (August 3, 1989). "Quayle Brings Support" (PDF). South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Retrieved May 9, 2018 – via  
  8. ^ a b c d e f Associated Press (August 16, 1989). "Lawyer Easily Wins Nomination to Replace Pepper in the House". The New York Times. Retrieved March 9, 2018.
  9. ^ a b c d e Associated Press (August 16, 1989). "House Race Seems Divisive" (PDF). Philadelphia Daily News. Retrieved March 9, 2018 – via  
  10. ^ Associated Press (August 16, 1989). "Cuban-born Demo Loses her bid for Pepper's seat" (PDF). The Arizona Daily Star. Retrieved May 9, 2018 – via  
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i Yanez, Luisa (August 30, 1989). "Ros-Letinen takes seat" (PDF). South Florida Sun Sentinel. Retrieved March 10, 2018 – via  
  12. ^ Yanez, Luisa (August 18, 1989). "Election debates canceled" (PDF). South Florida Sun Sentinel. Retrieved March 10, 2018 – via  
  13. ^ Knight Ridder Newspapers (August 31, 1989). "Ros-Letinen takes seat" (PDF). Arizona Daily Star. Retrieved May 18, 2018 – via