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‘Trailblazer’ Gwen Margolis Dies At 85

TALLAHASSEE --- Gwen Margolis, a Florida political pioneer who rose to become the first woman to serve as state Senate president, died early Tuesday, according to the Senate. Margolis was 85.

Margolis had been ill for the past six months and was residing at an assisted living facility at the time of her death, said Ron Book, a longtime friend and lobbyist who tearfully recalled Margolis and her accomplishments.

“Our entire world in Florida is better because of her service, her commitment, her sacrifice, the things she gave up to be what she was,” said Book, who had known Margolis since he was 6 years old, when she participated in a carpool along with his mother. “Others should take a page or two out of her book on how to conduct themselves.”

During her lengthy political career, Margolis, a Democrat, championed issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment, but she abruptly dropped a state Senate re-election bid in 2016 amid a furor over comments she made about Haitian-American opponents.

Margolis was first elected to the Florida House in 1974. At a time when many women lawmakers were relegated to serving on social service-type committees, Margolis earned a reputation as a budget expert and was eventually named chairwoman of the House Finance and Taxation Committee. She was elected to the Florida Senate in 1980 and later became chairwoman of the Finance and Tax and Appropriations committees before eventually being elected Senate president in 1990.

After rising to the top of the Legislature, Margolis appeared destined for Congress. But an effort to draw a new congressional district that included her home in Miami-Dade County wound up backfiring as she lost in 1992 to Republican Clay Shaw in a nasty partisan brawl, even though the district had been substantially reconfigured to her benefit.

Senate Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo released a statement Tuesday calling Margolis a “trailblazer” for many Democratic women, including herself.

“During these difficult times as a nation, when our country needs exceptional leaders like Gwen Margolis, her passion, commitment, and leadership will be remembered more than ever,” Rizzo said in a statement. “We send our deepest condolences to her family and loved ones.”

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only elected Democrat in a statewide office, issued a statement that said Margolis “lit a path for a generation of Florida’s women leaders to follow.”

“As the first female president of the Florida Senate, she was a champion for civil rights,” Fried said. “As a Jewish woman, I am deeply grateful for her leadership and her legacy.”

Margolis tenure as leader of the Senate was the last time that Democrats were in the majority, though the Senate was split for two years after she left. She edged out Sen. Jim Scott, a Fort Lauderdale Republican who went on to serve as president from 1994 to 1996.

Scott, now a lobbyist, recalled that he was chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee and Margolis was chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee under former Senate President Bob Crawford and said they worked together often.

“I didn’t find Gwen to be the rabid partisan that some men and women from South Florida had been,” Scott recalled Tuesday. “And also, I think she was kind of like me. I was taught that you get elected as a Republican or you get elected as a Democrat, but then you are senator first. And you are supposed to represent the whole state. You are a senator, and you are supposed to deal with public policy, and I found Gwen to do that.”

Margolis’ two-year term as Senate president came, Scott recalled, during “difficult times.” She presided over the Senate during the once-a-decade redistricting process, which is always controversial politically.

Her tenure also came during an economic downturn. Facing a budget shortfall, the Legislature was forced to reduce state spending by $513 million to balance the budget. And when Senate Republicans refused to back a previously agreed-to reduction plan, Margolis demanded the resignation of each Republican senator she had appointed to serve as a chair or vice chair of a committee.

After losing the 1992 congressional race to Shaw, Margolis served eight years as a Miami-Dade County commissioner before returning to the Senate in 2002. She was in the Senate from 2002 to 2008 and again from 2010 to 2016.

She never returned to a prominent position of power, though, in the Republican-controlled chamber. Former Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, bestowed the honorary title “Dean of the Senate” on her in 2012. 

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, issued a statement Tuesday recalling times when he joined Margolis for dinner after getting elected to the Senate in 2012.

“She could be fierce, yet loving, and I know those of us who served with President Margolis miss her quick wit in committee and on the Senate floor,” Galvano said.

Indeed, many Republicans on Tuesday issued statements on acknowledging her accomplishments. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Republican, noted that Margolis rose to become the first woman to chair the county commission and added that he and his wife “will miss this pillar of our community, always ready to serve.”

Former state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, said on Twitter that Margolis “shattered every glass ceiling she encountered. She served her constituents honorably and with distinction. There will never be another Gwen. She will be missed terribly by all that knew her."

Margolis announced her resignation from politics in 2016, after disparaging five Democrats who filed to run against her in a primary election, allegedly remarking at the Sunny Isles Beach Democratic Club that, “It’s reprehensible that three Haitians, some teacher and some lawyer think that they have the right to run against me.” 

Margolis was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame in 2009. According to a biography on the website, Margolis was the first woman in the United States “to serve as president of any Senate.”

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