Dealmakers: President of the Florida Senate, Gwen Margolis [New Miami magazine]
by Hope Katz Gibbs
New Miami magazine
Dealmakers / April 1991
Design by Kevin Jolliffe
GWEN MARGOLIS LIKES TO PLAY POKER. She often wins. Last fall, she bet her political career when she ran for president of the Florida Senate. The odds were against her. Never before had a woman held the position. The female, Jewish Democrat from North Miami was setting out to wrest power from a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats who had controlled the Senate for the past four years.
To battle her competitors—a Fort Lauderdale Republican and a Democrat from the Florida Panhandle—Margolis sought help from three Dade Republicans, all of them Cuban American state senators, and from Jorge Mas Canosa, the head of the Cuban-American National Foundation.
Their support, plus her solid legislative track record and unbridled confidence, helped the 56-year-old Margolis win the contest for president of the Florida Senate, one of the state government’s most powerful positions.
As Senate president, she wields power by deciding what legislation will get attention and which legislators will lead 22 committees. She also negotiates with Gov. Lawton Chiles and House Speaker T.K. Wetherell on budget issues.
Her background as the 1990 chairperson of the Senate Appropriations Committee will come in handy this year. Margolis will be a key leader in efforts to deal with chronic state budget shortfalls that measure in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Ultimately, in this recessionary time, I am glad I am the person leading the Senate,” she says. “Even though the state is short on money, I understand where the needs are and what needs to be done.”
Margolis parrots Gov. Chiles’ promise of no new taxes this legislative session, but says: “If times get worse, we may re-evaluate that. We must stabilize the tax base. That will mean revamping the entire tax system to make it fair for everyone.”
Instead of supporting new taxes, Margolis says she intends to push for some unpopular budget cuts. Among them: cuts in spending by the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.
“I know this will hurt a lot of people,” Margolis says, “but we have a budget shortfall and must do the best we can with our resources. The constitution says we have to balance the budget and that’s what we are going to do.”
Margolis’ straightforward approach to politics has helped her achieve political success. The Miami Herald ranked her the second most effective senator (second to former Senate president Bob Crawford) in 1989 and 1990. “As chairman of the appropriations committee, she was a major player,” the Herald said. “She is given high marks for handling a difficult role skillfully.”
Stanley Tate, a Miami developer, agrees. “Gwen has a way of seeing through the bullshit that goes on in Tallassee,” says Tate, who has known Margolis since 1974 when he was mayor of Bay Harbor Islands and she won her first election to state office—a seat in the Florida House of Representatives. “If she can do as good a job as [Senate] president as she did as appropriations chairman, she will be well thought of by the legislators.”
Indeed, if Margolis can repeat her success last year with the Appropriations Committee-and if U.S. Rep. William Lehman retires—she says she may run for Congress after her term in Tallahassee ends in 1992.
Running for Congress would be formidable challenge for Margolis, who hasn’t been forced to campaign vigorously to remain in state office. In fact, in her 16 years in the Florida Legislature, she has faced only one Republican opponent in her heavily Democratic district.
In 1974 she defeated Democratic incumbent Ted Cohen in a primary election and waltzed into the Florida House of Representatives, unopposed by the GOP. She was re-elected without Republican opposition in 1976 and 1978.
In 1980, she defeated Republican Raymond Val in her first run for the Florida Senate and ran unopposed in 1984 and 1988. She has been backed by a North Miami constituency dominated by elderly, wealthy Democrats.
“There are certain districts that are so Democratic that it makes it difficult to sustain a challenge,” concedes John Schmitz, chairman of the Republican Party in Dade County.
But if Margolis runs for Congress, she will need to appeal to a larger, more diversified constituency, one that may not agree with her positions on state fiscal policy, Schmitz says.
“She has been more prone to advocate more taxes and spending than her Republican counterparts,” says Schmitz. “If she were to run countywide, she would come up against some opposition.”
Until her current term expires in 1992, however, Margolis is content to flex her muscle as president of the Florida Senate. Although Tallahassee is a political arena dominated largely by men, Margolis has started to change that. She recently appointed female lawmakers to run nine committees.
“I’ve had to be more disciplined and work harder than my colleagues,” she says. “Now, I’m here for the next two years, I pinch myself every morning and say they can’t take it away from me.”