Fabiola Santiago

An ugly ethnic rant mars a distinguished political career

State Sen. Gwen Margolis makes comments following a debate at the New Miami Forum, Sept. 30, 2011. The nonpartisan group met to debate charter reform, term limits and other issues.
State Sen. Gwen Margolis makes comments following a debate at the New Miami Forum, Sept. 30, 2011. The nonpartisan group met to debate charter reform, term limits and other issues. mhalper@miamiherald.com

There’s much to learn from the final days of Sen. Gwen Margolis’ distinguished career in public service — and the disparaging comments that abruptly ended it.

Facing re-election in a redrawn district, the Miami senator — a Democrat, first elected to the Florida House in 1974 and in public service since then — felt so entitled to retain her seat that she slammed her opponents in the worst way.

“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 those who heard her speak before a gathering of the Sunny Isles Beach Democratic Club on Monday night.

Margolis not only made the disparaging comments once, but she continued to refer to her opponents in those offensive and undemocratic terms throughout her entire talk, leaving her audience stunned.

This is a lawmaker after whom a community center and an amphitheater are named in North Miami, a city with a significant Haitian-American population. This is a lawmaker whose district is 33 percent black. This is a lawmaker with tremendous name recognition and powerful endorsements — and she had a good shot at re-election once more.

Her behavior is perplexing and discouraging — more so when Margolis, 81, has yet to offer any explanations, or any sort of apology.

For GOP presumptive nominee Donald Trump, disparaging a group of people is standard practice. Not to say that Democrats are exempt from displays of bigotry, but for a senator with a record of standing up for causes such as gay rights and the advancement of minorities to engage in a rant tinged by inappropriate racial and ethnic tones is unusual.

In a historic presidential election year, when the first woman to win the nomination of a major party is making history — and Hillary Clinton will need coalitions to shatter the ultimate glass ceiling and win — Democrats can’t afford such blunders.

Under pressure from local Democratic Party leaders who immediately went to work to repair the political damage, Margolis announced her retirement from the race and from politics on Thursday. She sent a statement to the Miami Herald heavy in self-praise for her contributions and accomplishments, but unapologetic.

She fell short on delivering what is still sorely needed: an explanation that might not only shed light on her behavior but teach all of us something. Given her stature, the circumstances call for a display of leadership instead of arrogance.

Her list of accomplishments doesn’t exempt her from being judged for a sad, last-chapter act of bigotry and entitlement.

Certainly, Margolis has a record to be proud of, even if her minor bills lately weren’t going anywhere and she cast a confusing vote in favor of an NRA-endorsed bill to strengthen the Stand Your Ground law in a way that might have left minority victims with the decks stacked against justice. She was the lone Democrat to join Republicans, a vote she later changed but which stayed on the official record.

During her 40 years in public office, her name has carried plenty of clout, and she represented Miami-Dade with distinction. Margolis was the first woman elected Senate president in the state, and she was a Miami-Dade commissioner from 1993 to 2002. Six of those years she led as commission chair.

Her remarks, however, coupled with previous comments about redistricting having left Miami-Dade without an assured non-Hispanic white seat, make a good case for term limits. Veterans bring a wealth of experience, but comfort-zone entitlement doesn’t serve the public. Her repeated “Haitians” commentary was more than a “flap,” as some are casting it, but damaging to a vulnerable community making its way in the political arena despite the odds. Margolis’ comments ring of bottled-up anger at the diversification of her hometown.

No politician should think that longevity grants them an automatic right to a seat, not even “a Democratic icon,” as Margolis is.

Retiring was the honorable thing to do, but it’s not enough.

Why not apologize — show this community how to learn and heal — and end a distinguished career on a high note of leadership?

Margolis still owes her opponents — and the community she has served well, one that has supported and honored her — an apology.

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