The night was Nov. 6, 1990, and Gwen Margolis nervously awaited election results in the president’s suite off the Florida Senate chamber.
If the Democrats held on to the majority, she would become the first female Senate president and only the second from Miami-Dade County. The day before, she showed confidence in the outcome by replacing the furniture and paintings of the outgoing president.
Days later, Margolis who had been known to play poker and go hunting with her male colleagues, downplayed the significance of her gender. “My colleagues just treat me as a colleague, except they hug me,” she said.
Although Margolis was proud of her ascent as a woman in male-dominated Tallahassee, it was not about gender alone: She had put in the hard work of learning the ropes and cultivating relationships to make that happen.
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Margolis, 81, ultimately served four decades in politics before her career screeched to a halt this week when she made comments dismissing her opponents as “Haitians” in a newly drawn district where blacks make up one-third of the voters.
In an email to the Miami Herald on Friday she offered an apology: “I’m sorry if the words I used were hurtful to anyone in the community as it was never my intention to offend anyone or group. My parents taught me to be respectful of everyone in the community, and I teach that same message of tolerance to my four children.”
The episode was an unfortunate bookend to a remarkable political career for a hard-working, intelligent and passionate public servant who was a trailblazer for other female politicians.
While at Temple University in the 1950s, she met and married Allan Margolis. She left college after a couple of years, and in 1960 they moved to Florida, where they raised four children and divorced in 1981. She had a successful career in real estate and investment — her net worth rose to about $5.3 million in 2014.
Margolis declined an interview with the Miami Herald but agreed to answer questions in writing.
She first ran for the Legislature in 1974 and defeated Democrat Ted Cohen.
“My decision was part of the women’s movement, and I realized the only way our issues could get attention was to run for office,” she wrote Friday.
The proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was the main reason Margolis first ran, the Florida Channel reported in an interview with Margolis earlier this year.
When that amendment failed to pass the Florida Senate in 1982, Margolis warned: “The women of this country will never forget this vote. They will not give up. They will not give in.”
Margolis beat a Republican for her first Senate seat in 1980.
“Somewhere along the line I decided that I was going to be just like those guys, and I’m only going to ask for committees that are money committees,” she told the Florida Channel. “That was part of the reason I moved forward in the ranks as well as I did.”
She became known as a tax and budget expert, said lobbyist Ron Book, who has known her for decades.
“She was always proud of the fact that she was able as a woman to build a relationship with the good ol’ boy pork chop gang, that a Jewish woman from South Florida could ultimately build the confidence and trust and mix with the pork chop boys from the Panhandle and rise to the presidency of the Florida Senate,” Book said.
Margolis told the Herald that one of the key changes during her tenure was the growth of the influence of lobbyists.
“Today, when legislation needs to be passed, we see lobbyists hired to get that done,” she said. “Back in my early days, it was legislators working on getting legislation passed.”
After the 1990 election, Margolis had more maneuvering to do to secure her position as Senate president. She lunched with Miami-Dade’s three Cuban-American Republican senators to secure their backing to fend off an effort to install a more conservative Democrat: W.D. Childers of Pensacola. News reports said she was the first woman to hold such a position in the country.
“It was an unbelievable moment as it marked a historic moment for women not only in Florida, but across the nation,” Margolis told the Herald this week.
The 1991 session was contentious as the state faced a budget shortfall. On Friday the 13th, she fired all her Republican chairmen after they refused to vote with her on budget cuts.
The St. Petersburg Times wrote at the time that Margolis wore a T-shirt that read: “I suffer from PMS ... putting up with men’s s--t.”
Margolis created ties with rural and urban legislators and advanced based on her own talents and work ethic, said former Broward County sheriff Ken Jenne, who served along with her in the Senate.
“She did not feel compelled to speak on every issue but when she did it was very thoughtful, very meaningful and people listened to her,” he said.
While president, she sometimes sparred with fellow Democrat Gov. Lawton Chiles, disagreeing with his push to set a $500 limit on campaign contributions.
Despite opposition from some colleagues, she advocated for a Sunshine constitutional amendment to guarantee the public’s access to government records and meetings.
“I think this is what people in the state of Florida want,” she said in 1991.
And what Margolis wanted was higher office.
While Senate president, she quietly drew a redistrict map proposal to include what she thought would be a winning congressional district for herself. She said she intended to take on the popular but ailing U.S. Rep. Bill Lehman, who ultimately retired.
But she faced a formidable Republican opponent in 1992: U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw, a former Fort Lauderdale mayor. She portrayed him as a right-winger, but that didn’t fly in the district where Shaw was well liked and had crossover support from prominent Democrats. On election day she faced her first defeat.
She bounced back with a win on the Miami-Dade Commission, where she served for a decade. In 1996, she cut a deal with Alex Penelas during his mayoral campaign: She would help him in Northeast Dade if he would promise to give her the commission chair if he won. It paid off.
Margolis was an advocate for women and minorities and a progressive on social issues and workers’ rights, Penelas said.
“She had the right combination of smarts and political savvy to get the agenda through,” he said.
Margolis said one of her proudest moments at the county was passing the human rights ordinance, which banned discrimination based on sexual orientation and narrowly passed 7-6 in 1998. That was 21 years after the original law was repealed in the Anita Bryant campaign.
Politics at County Hall could be nasty.
In 2002 nearing the end of a marathon budget meeting at 4 a.m., Margolis tried to cut off Commissioner Natacha Seijas, who shot back, “You’re going to leave here in a body bag if you keep this up.”
Margolis called the police. Seijas said she meant “political body bag.”
After many years back at the Senate, she ran for Miami-Dade property appraiser in 2008 but lost a runoff to Pedro Garcia.
She barely took a break from elected office, returning to the state Senate in 2010.
Sen. Don Gaetz, a Republican who now lives in Northwest Florida, said that Margolis was his senator when he lived in Miami Shores in the 1980s. When he became Senate president in 2012, he said Margolis was often “in my face” about the needs of Miami-Dade County.
In recent years, Gaetz sat next to her on the Senate floor.
“Gwen Margolis is the living history of the Florida Legislature,” he said. “Time after time, Gwen would lean over to me during a debate and give me the history of an issue stretching back to the 1970s and then predict to me how the issue would be resolved,” Gaetz said. “Nine out of 10 times it was right.”
During redistricting, she warned that the new map would leave Miami-Dade County without an obvious seat for a non-Hispanic white candidate. Margolis left her home in Coconut Grove for Aventura to run in the new district that spans from Miami Beach to Aventura.
And the beginning of the end occurred at what should have been just another run-of-the-mill political event for her: a Democratic club meeting at Tony Roma’s in Sunny Isles Beach.
“It’s reprehensible that three Haitians, some teacher and some lawyer think that they have the right to run against me,” Margolis said, according to one of her opponents, teacher Don Festge. He posted her comments on Facebook and emailed them to the Miami Herald.
Her comments set off a firestorm in Miami-Dade Democratic politics, with the county party chair asking for her to apologize and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union making a move toward yanking its endorsement. It was all over in less than 48 hours. She announced her retirement Thursday without mentioning the incident.
Asked about it by the Herald, on Friday she wrote: “It was unfortunate in my answering a question of who is running against me and filed in the race. It was not a purposeful statement and one that was not meant to be more than that. My constituents know my record of being a trailblazer and one that is always on their side of fighting against injustices and inequalities.”
Those who have observed her for decades say her comments do not represent the politician who spoke up for the poor, racial minorities and LGBT community.
“That seems so out of character with President Margolis,” Gaetz said. “In my experience with her she becomes most concerned and most passionate when people who are disadvantaged in one way or another are being harmed in any way.”
Margolis leaves behind a Legislature that is now roughly one-quarter female.
“We have so many really fine women legislators here now,” she told the Florida Channel. “I am very proud to say I have been one of them for a very long time.”
News archives of the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times were used in this article.
Florida House of Representatives: 1974-1980.
Miami-Dade County Commission: 1993-2002, including six years as chair.
Florida Senate: 1980-92; 2002-08, 2010-16, served as president 1990-92.
Elections lost: 1992 for Congress, 2008 for Miami-Dade property appraiser.
Personal: Born Oct. 4, 1934 in Philadelphia. Moved to Florida in 1960. Divorced, four children.
Education: Attended Temple University.
Other career: Real estate broker, investor.
Sources: Senate biography and interviews