ST. PETERSBURG — Sitting in a booth in a local coffee shop on a recent weekday morning, Lorraine Margeson laughed over how polite she has become. In the thick of a City Council campaign, she's trying to learn election etiquette and there's a lot of "my opponent this …" and "my opponent that …"
It's probably the first time she hasn't called anyone out by name in two decades.
A long-time activist for environmental issues and an array of other causes, Margeson, 56, is making her second bid for a City Council seat. The last time, in 1997, she was trying to call attention to drugs and prostitution that moved into her neighborhood after dark. Whether she won or not (she didn't) was a secondary consideration.
This time, she says she's serious about making the switch from activist to insider, a transformation that would surprise no one more than Margeson herself.
"I always wanted to be the one who fights for the people, because I know how to do it," she said.
But this summer's heated, sometimes nasty, debate over the city's Pier and its proposed Lens design changed that. She took a job as the office manager for the group Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, which opposed the Lens, and tried, unsuccessfully, to get City Council to take its side. A rival group formed and the two organizations battled until the day of the August primary, when voters overwhelmingly approved severing the Lens contract.
The fight so completely divided the city's political class, Margeson said, that long-time friends and allies stopped speaking to each other.
In the middle of all of this, Margeson opened her mailbox to find a new voter identification card. The district lines had been redrawn, and she now lived in District 2, currently represented by Jim Kennedy, a Lens supporter who was unopposed at the time. Friends and her husband encouraged her to run, but it's doubtful she needed much prodding.
Born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens and Long Island, Margeson left there in the 1980s, but her elbows are as sharp as if she used them yesterday to plow through a herd of tourists. Her voice is the loudest in the room, and yet she leans into the microphone at candidate forums, sending sonic booms into the audience.
"It's too freaking stressful," she says of the city now. "If I was back in New York City, there's no way I would have a voice to change stuff like I can here, and that means something to me."
Margeson has never held elected office. She first made a name for herself in the Central Oak Park neighborhood, where she led bands of neighbors armed with two-way radios on crime walks and pushed for a crackdown on some seedy 34th Street motels. She's critical of current policing methods and, like many candidates in this election, supports returning to a system of assigning officers to neighborhoods.
From there, she moved on to environmental issues. She pushed for an amendment to the county's charter that would require a voter referendum before the Pinellas County Commission can sell land in county-owned preserves or management areas or remove the environmental lands designation from those properties. It passed.
She formed the group POWW (Preserve Our Wallets and Waterfront) to oppose a waterfront stadium when the Tampa Bay Rays were eyeing a move to Al Lang Field.
She defended Pinellas County's decision to charge a fee to enter Fort De Soto Park. And she protested plans to bring a restaurant to the park, a change that supporters said would have little impact on the environment.
"Baloney," she said.
Margeson is probably the county's most prominent environmental activist, said Fort De Soto park manager Jim Wilson. "I think her track record speaks for itself."
But for those who've been on the other side of one of her causes, it can be an unpleasant experience. For his first project as a City Council member, Kennedy proposed opening a park on some open land in his district — land that Margeson thought should be protected. What began as a conversation turned into a full-fledged confrontation, he recalled.
"I can remember that I backed up like 30 or 40 feet because she was so aggressively in my face," he said.
Though she has had many successes as an activist, Margeson's life as the co-owner of a small business has been tumultuous.
Not long after they got married, she and her husband, Don, started Donlo Communications, a computer networking equipment repair and re-sale business. For several years before the financial crisis hit, they made a million dollars a year, enough to build a three story house with a roof deck and a pool in a woody area abutting Mangrove Bay Golf Course.
Then came the recession, and their customers, along with their savings, evaporated. Today, Margeson and her husband are fighting foreclosure.
"We're tough, whatever comes, we'll handle it," she said.
Right now, though, she has volunteers to marshal and a staggering number of candidate forums to attend.
Whether she'll continue to be one of the most visible pushers in the city, or become one of the pushed, hangs in the balance of this election.
"I don't know how much I can do anymore unless I can sit up there and try to bring some sanity to the process," she said.
Contact Anna M. Phillips at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.