Miami state senator refers to rivals as ‘Haitians’

State Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, debates on an abortion bill during session in March.
State Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, debates on an abortion bill during session in March. AP

Miami state Sen. Gwen Margolis apparently disparaged three of her opponents as “Haitians” and dismissed two others as “some teacher and some lawyer” at a local Democratic meeting Monday night, according to the only one of her rivals who was present.

“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 teacher Don Festge.

“I’ve been in office for over 40 years,” Margolis continued, according to Festge. “What does some teacher know about Tallahassee and how to run the Senate?”

Margolis went on to refer to her Haitian-American competitors — businessman Anis Blémur, former state Rep. Phillip Brutus and state Rep. Daphne Campbell — as “Haitians” four more times, Festge said. He added that Margolis later concluded: “I have unlimited funds, and I’m going to spend every penny, and I’m not going to lose to those three Haitians or some teacher or lawyer.”

The lawyer in question is Jason Pizzo. All the candidates running in the Aug. 30 primary are Democrats. About 33 percent of the district’s voters are black.

Festge — who, like Margolis and Pizzo, is white — recounted the scene to the Miami Herald on Tuesday.

“I have a lot of friends, I have students, that are of Haitian descent. For me to hear her say that right off the bat, I was like, ‘OK, this isn’t right,’ ” said Festge, a hospitality teacher at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School in North Miami. “I was hoping it just might have been once — it might have been a slip of the tongue or something like that. And then she continued.”

Margolis, 81, is the longest-serving sitting lawmaker in the Florida Senate. She’s running for a newly redrawn, coastal Miami-Dade district that runs from Miami Beach to Aventura. To run for the new, still-Democratic-leaning seat, she plans to leave her longtime home in Coconut Grove, which is no longer within District 38’s boundaries. At one point during redistricting, Margolis warned that the new map would leave Miami-Dade County without an obvious seat for a non-Hispanic white candidate.

Qualifying ends June 24; Margolis holds a significant fundraising advantage over all the others. She announced an endorsement Tuesday from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a labor union.

“It’s been an honor to be a strong Democratic voice for Miami-Dade residents over the years,” Margolis said in a statement. “I have enjoyed broad support from a coalition of groups and residents because of my record of always standing up against injustices and inequality. As the first woman to lead a senate chamber, I know that we must always find barriers to break for our constituents, and I intend to continue to do so with the trust and support of all Miami-Dade residents.”

Festge, 49, denounced Margolis in a Facebook post widely seen by other local Democrats, including a party official who called on the senator to apologize.

“We all have tremendous respect for Sen. Margolis’ 40 years of public service, but no one is entitled to a Senate seat,” Miami-Dade County Democratic Party executive director Juan Cuba said in a statement. “Her remarks were offensive. The other candidates and communities they represent deserve an apology.”

Festge’s account was confirmed in general terms by Lewis Thaler, president of the Sunny Isles Beach Democratic Club that hosted Margolis at a Tony Roma’s restaurant on Monday. No audio or video recordings of the remarks have been produced.

“Well, something to that effect — yes, she did say that,” Thaler told the Miami Herald. “She did refer to the teacher and refer to the Haitians, but I could not quote exactly what she said.”

Two other attendees couldn’t confirm Margolis’ comments. Robert Paget, the club’s vice president said he heard about them but was outside the room when she was speaking. Former state Sen. Ron Silver said he was talking to someone at his table and not paying attention. Sunny Isles Beach Commissioner Jennifer Levin, who was also at the meeting, declined to comment.

Thaler, a former Sunny Isles city commissioner, stood by Margolis, whom he has endorsed for re-election.

“I really do not believe it was discriminatory,” Thaler said of Margolis’ comment. “Was it proper? No. I’ve known her a long time; she has been around longer than I have. I really don’t believe she meant it that way, discriminatory.”

Brutus, the former state representative running for Senate, said he felt Margolis was out of line to lump him, Campbell and Blémur in together as just “Haitians.”

“It’s racist and xenophobic, and I don’t think Margolis can denounce Donald Trump and keep a straight face,” he said. “It is sad that Sen. Margolis, having served so long and so ably, should succumb to the possibility that people dare challenge her.”

Said Pizzo, the attorney and former prosecutor: “If what’s being reported is true, it’s the clearest indication yet that new leadership is necessary.”