TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Sen. Gwen Margolis, a South Florida political icon who once served as the first female president of the state Senate, ended her bid for re-election Thursday in the wake of reports that she disparaged the heritage of several of her primary opponents.READ MORE: Man Held Without Bond In Killing Of Baby, Babysitter In Coral Springs
Margolis’ retirement announcement, released by her campaign, marks the end of a career that spanned more than four decades and will further open an already competitive Democratic primary contest in District 38, a seat reshaped in the recent court fight over redistricting.
Margolis, 81, reflected on her political career as a “remarkable journey” in the announcement.
“I am guided by the belief that one must leave your community a better place from where you started,” Margolis said. “Today, I am proud to say that we have done that. The last 40 years have been a blessing because so many milestones and history-making moments were reached on behalf of Miami-Dade and Florida. I look forward to the journey ahead as I continue to lend my voice and leadership on issues that will take our community to new heights.”
Incoming Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, praised Margolis as a “fierce advocate for our community.”
“There are few leaders in our state with the leadership and presence like Gwen Margolis and the Florida Senate and Democratic Caucus will always be grateful for her service,” Braynon said in a release. “I know I will continue to see Gwen lend her passion to important causes in our community of Miami-Dade County.”
Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, said it’s unfortunate how Margolis, who has broken a number of barriers regarding women in politics, is exiting the political field.
“I do admire — and I think others will feel badly about how her career is ending — but I admire the fact that she recognized a mistake and stepped aside with dignity,” MacManus said.
But MacManus added she wasn’t surprised by Margolis’ decision, noting the current political environment, the growing diversity among voters in her South Florida district and a field that includes experienced and ambitious Haitian-America politicians.
No mention was made in Margolis’ announcement of her reported remarks Monday at a Sunny Isles Beach Boulevard Democratic Club meeting in which she allegedly gave a blanket description of her primary challengers as “three Haitians, some teacher and some lawyer.”
Margolis, whose comments were first reported by the Miami Herald, is alleged to have said during the event that it was “reprehensible that three Haitians, some teacher and some lawyer think that they have the right to run against me.” The Herald reported that the quotes came from Don Festge, the teacher running against Margolis.
Three of the remaining five District 38 Democratic primary candidates — accountant Anis Blémur, former state Rep. Phillip Brutus and state Rep. Daphne Campbell — are Haitian-Americans.
No Republican has announced for the seat.
Brutus on Wednesday called on Florida Democratic Party leaders to denounce Margolis’ comments as “anti-Haitian” and for the incumbent senator to leave the race.READ MORE: Report: South Florida Counties Have High COVID Levels, Despite CDC Numbers
“It is truly sad that Sen. Margolis would stoop that low just because she has competition,” Brutus said. “What is reprehensible is the fact that Gwen Margolis, a public figure, thought it acceptable to attack the Haitian community the way she did.”
The redrawn District 38, which is heavily Democratic, runs along the Atlantic, traveling from Miami Beach north to Golden Beach, and includes North Miami, Biscayne Park, Miami Shores and El Portal. About 40 percent of the district identifies as Hispanic, and about one-third of the voting age population is black.
Brutus noted that several community groups were planning rallies and demonstrations to protest Margolis’ comments, which he said are seen as an “affront to a hard working segment of the South Florida community.”
Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant praised Margolis in the release from the senator’s re-election campaign.
“Sen. Margolis shattered glass ceilings in 1990 when she ascended, with the support of her peers, as the first woman to serve as senate president,” Tant said. “She set a mark in history that will always be remembered and one that the Democratic Party is forever grateful for. I know she will continue to do great things in her community and her leadership will be missed in the Florida Senate.”
The Philadelphia-born Margolis, a real estate broker who attended Temple University, was first elected to the House in 1974. She entered the Senate for the first time in 1980, becoming president in 1990.
She left the Senate two years later for an unsuccessful run against Republican U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw for his Congressional seat.
In 1993, she was elected to the Dade County Commission, where she would be until 2002, when she again ran for and won a seat in the Florida Senate.
Margolis served in the Senate until 2008, when she ran to be Miami-Dade Property Appraiser. She lost in a run-off and was able to win her Senate seat back in 2010.
Margolis had raised only $350 last month for her re-election, but was firmly leading the funding portion of the contest overall, having collected nearly $80,000 in donations, in addition to loaning herself $50,000, since filing for re-election.
Blémur, who unsuccessfully ran for a Senate seat in 2014, reported raising $4,400 last month. Brutus, a former state House member from North Miami, put $10,000 of his own money into his campaign. Don Festge, a teacher at the Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School, posted $305 for his May contributions.
Fundraising reports for May were unavailable Thursday from Campbell, who was first elected to the House in 2010, and Jason Pizzo, an attorney from North Miami Beach who entered the Democratic primary on May 24.
Campbell was second to Margolis in terms of overall fundraising, having collected $25,209 entering May.
Qualifying for the district ends noon June 24.MORE NEWS: COVID-19 Testing Site Finder
The News Service of Florida’s Jim Turner contributed to this report.