Gwen Margolis, a trailblazing figure in Florida and Miami-Dade politics who served as the first female to lead the male-dominated state Senate, died early Tuesday. Her family said she died peacefully of natural causes. She was 85.
Margolis, a Democrat, served a total of 30 years in the state Legislature, over three different stretches that began in 1974 and ended in 2016, when she decided not to seek another term. She served in the House of Representatives from 1974 to 1980. After that, she was elected to the Senate. She reached its top job in 1990 and became the first woman to lead any state Senate in the country.
Over the course of her 42-year career in public office, Margolis was a champion of women’s rights, pushing for the Equal Rights Amendment early in her career and frequently becoming the first in nearly all of her leadership endeavors.
She was the first woman to chair the Finance and Tax Committees in both the House and the Senate and the Senate Appropriations Committee, all powerful positions that require skills of diplomacy and attention to detail. Margolis was the first woman to chair the Miami-Dade County Commission. And when she arrived in the Senate, there wasn’t even a women’s bathroom on the same floor, recalled Ed Margolis, her son.
Margolis’ counterpart in the House for her two-year term as Senate president was the late T.K. Wetherell, and along with then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, their tenure marked the end of the era when Florida government was controlled by Democrats.
Margolis ran for Congress in a redistricted seat in 1992 but lost to Republican E. Clay Shaw, Jr. She served on the Miami-Dade County Commission and returned to the Senate from 2002 to 2008, and again from 2010 to 2016.
“Senator Margolis shattered glass ceilings in 1990 when she ascended, with the support of her peers, as the first woman to serve as Senate president,” said Allison Tant, the former Democratic Party chairperson when Margolis retired. “She set a mark in history that will always be remembered and one that the Democratic Party is forever grateful for.”
During her two-year term as Senate president, Margolis helped to put on the ballot the Sunshine Amendment in 1992, leading to constitutionally-mandated open meetings and open records in Florida, and worked to pass the strong ethics legislation.
A mom and a legislator
Her daughter, Karen Margolis, recalls growing up “around the kitchen table where the conversation centered on the politics of the day, from the hateful rhetoric of Anita Bryant against the gay community, to civil rights, to the woman’s movement,’’ she said. “My mom was passionate about social justice and she instilled that in her children. And that’s something that I’ve passed on to my own kids.
“She was an amazing role model,’’ Karen Margolis continued. “She wasn’t always easy as a mom. But, she was ours, in all her complexity, and I am so grateful for all she has taught me and for her love.”
“President Margolis was a wealth of historical and institutional knowledge,” said Senate President Bill Galvano, a Republican from Bradenton in an email to the Senate on Tuesday, adding that “like many of you, I learned so much from her.’’
He noted that in 2012, then-President Don Gaetz gave Margolis the honorary title of “Dean of the Senate,” because she was the longest-serving senator.
“Margolis took that responsibility very seriously and worked to set an example for newer senators,’’ Galvano said, recalling having several dinners with her in which he listened to her advice and stories. “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.”
A legislative mentor
Former state Rep. David Richardson, whose Miami Beach district included parts of Margolis’ Senate district, said she took a special interest in mentoring him.
“She always made herself available whenever I had questions,’’ he said. “Her first piece of advice for me, she said: ‘David, get on the appropriations committees, follow the money, everything’s about money,’ ’’ he recalled. “I will miss her, and our entire community will miss her.”
During the fiscal crisis of 1990, the state considered ending summer school until her grandchildren wrote her a letter urging her not to. She found a way avoid it.
“What I will remember the most, she drove me to school from the time I was 7 years old until seventh grade,” said Ron Book, a veteran lobbyist and longtime friend. “When she got to the Senate, she had the ability to be one of the good ol’ boys,’’ getting along with Senate veterans Dempsey Barron, W.D. Childers and Mallory Horne. “She was never afraid to put the cowboy boots on but always had a line about high-heeled shoes and they never could take it out of her.”
Margolis inherently understood that voters would make the final decision and held the ultimate power, said Ed Margolis. “Behind the scenes politically she would do a lot of negotiating, and when she sometimes needed to take a questionable vote, or one she didn’t like, she always felt the public would win the day,’’ he said.
Under her leadership on the Miami-Dade County Commission, she oversaw the passage of historic legislation in 1998 banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
She earned such commitment and respect that the wife of the late Dempsey Barron, Terri Jo Barron, returned to the Senate to work for Margolis, Book recalled.
Born to the late Joseph and Rose Liedman on Oct. 4, 1934, Margolis grew up in Philadelphia with her brother Stephen. She graduated from Overbrook High School and attended Temple University.
She married Allan B. Margolis at the age of 18, and they had four children; Edward, Ira, Karen and Robin. In 1960, the couple moved to Miami where she began an early successful career in real estate.
State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the lone Democrat in statewide office, said Margolis “lit a path for a generation of Florida’s women leaders to follow.”
“As a Jewish woman, I am deeply grateful for her leadership and her legacy,’’ Fried said.
Terrie Rizzo, current chair of the Democratic Party, said that Margolis “was a hardworking leader with a remarkable career.”
“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. “We send our deepest condolences to her family and loved ones.”
Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, who succeeded Margolis in the Senate in 2008, called her “a force of nature. Her accomplishments were entirely historic,’’ he said.
“Gwen Margolis was a terrific friend but you didn’t want her as an enemy,’’ said Rep. Joe Geller, an Aventura Democrat. “She was a fierce fighter for the progressive causes she believed in so deeply. She was a great friend and I will miss her. “
Margolis’ last campaign ended abruptly. She was a heavy favorite in the six-way primary but stumbled badly and bowed out after dismissively referring to her opponents as “three Haitians, some teacher and some lawyer,” during a local Democratic meeting.
Margolis was elected to the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame in 2009 and has several public facilities named for her in North Miami-Dade: Sen. Gwen Margolis Community Center in North Miami, Sen. Gwen Margolis Park in Sunny Isles Beach and Sen. Gwen Margolis Amphitheater in North Miami Beach.
She is survived by four children, Edward (Deborah) of Hallandale Beach, Ira (Cyndie) of Cumming, Georgia, Karen (Victor Nussbaum) of Framingham, Massachusetts, and Robin (David) Stidham of Westlake Village, California,, as well as seven grandchildren, Sarah and Jeffrey (MiYoung) Margolis, Jordan and Ariel Stidham, and Leah, Daniel and Jared Nussbaum, and her brother and sister-in-law, Yale Stephen and Marilyn Liedman.
A funeral service will be live-streamed for family and friends. Interment will be private. Contributions in her memory may be made to the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, Beth Torah (Benny Rok Campus) and Feeding South Florida.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org