Former Senate President Gwen Margolis — the last Democrat to preside over a majority-Democratic Senate — has passed away at the age of 85 of natural causes.
Margolis was also the first woman state Senate President in the country’s history. Her passing was confirmed by the Florida Senate Tuesday.
“President Margolis was a wealth of historical and institutional knowledge, and like many of you, I learned so much from her,” said Senate President Bill Galvano.
“In 2012, President [Don] Gaetz gave President Margolis the honorary title of ‘Dean of the Senate,’ which she carried to her retirement in 2016. President Margolis took that responsibility very seriously and worked to set an example for newer Senators. After I was first elected to the Senate in 2012, I can remember joining Sen. Margolis for several dinners, listening to her advice, and hearing so many of her stories about the process and the people she encountered along the way.”
Added Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson, “As the first woman Senate President not only in Florida but the nation, Gwen Margolis was a principled, passionate warrior for positive change. Her determination broke through barriers and inspired the many women who followed in her footsteps to serve in the Florida Legislature.”
The trailblazing lawmaker represented parts of Miami-Dade County. She started her time in the Legislature — which spanned parts of more than four decades — with a win in a 1974 race for House District 102.
With the nation debating the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, Margolis was motivated to move over to the Senate in 1980. Once elected, she advocated for Florida to approve the measure, but was ultimately unsuccessful in persuading her Senate colleagues.
Her original Senate tenure — the first of three stints in that body — lasted until 1992, with Margolis serving as Senate President for the final two years. The 1990-1992 period was the last time Democrats controlled the Senate.
After departing the Senate in 1992, Margolis returned to local government, sitting on the Miami-Dade County Commission from 1993 to 2002. She also served as chair for six years.
Margolis returned to the Senate with a 2002 victory in District 35, serving through 2008. She then ran for and won that seat again in 2010.
After a redistricting plan altered seats ahead of the 2016 election, Margolis weighed a run in Senate District 38. She ultimately declined, leaving the Senate for good. The SD 38 seat was filled by Daphne Campbell and is now held by Sen. Jason Pizzo.
Margolis was born in Pennsylvania in 1934. She met her husband, Allan Margolis, at Temple University before moving to Florida together in 1960.
They divorced in the early 1980s, but by then Margolis had already begun her long-spanning political career in the state. She also worked in real estate, earning millions.
Margolis is survived by four children and seven grandchildren.
Tuesday morning, the Florida Democratic Party (FDP) released a statement saying the state had lost “a pioneer.”
“Gwen Margolis was a hardworking leader with a remarkable career,” said FDP Chair Terrie Rizzo.
“She was a trailblazer for many Democratic women in our state, including myself. 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. We send our deepest condolences to her family and loved ones.”
Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chair Steve Simeonidis also spoke out.
“Today, Miami-Dade Democrats mourn the loss of a trailblazing leader,” Simeonidis said.
“Gwen Margolis not only became the first woman president of the Florida Senate, she knew the importance of local government, serving in our County Commission, including as chairwoman. We send our deepest condolences to her family. May her memory be a blessing.”
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the highest-ranking Democrat in state politics, remembered Margolis’ legacy.
“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.”
Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis responded to the news of her passing in a tweet.
“Prayers for the family of Former Senate President Gwen Margolis, a gracious public servant that will be missed,” Patronis wrote.
— Jimmy Patronis (@JimmyPatronis) June 9, 2020
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg — who served with Margolis in the Senate during the 2000s — also issued a statement.
“Gwen Margolis was my state Senator, then later a colleague,” Aronberg said.
“Smart, passionate and tenacious, ‘Madam President’ (as I called her) was a trailblazer and Florida political icon who improved the lives of so many in our state. May her name be of blessed memory.”
Gwen Margolis was my State Senator, then later a colleague. Smart, passionate and tenacious, “Madam President” (as I called her) was a trailblazer and Florida political icon who improved the lives of so many in our state. May her name be of blessed memory. 🙏🏻 https://t.co/OmJIcFp66m
— Dave Aronberg (@aronberg) June 9, 2020
Aronberg was just one of several of Margolis’ ex-Senate colleagues to react to her passing Tuesday.
“My sincere condolence to President Margolis’s family,” said former Sen. Joe Abbruzzo.
“Was a true honor being part of Gwen’s Senate family. President Margolis exuded admirable grace while breaking barriers and greatly improving our state by her steadfast advocacy. You will be deeply missed Madam President.”
My sincere condolence to President Margolis’s family. Was a true honor being part of Gwen’s Senate family. President Margolis exuded admirable grace while breaking barriers and greatly improving our state by her steadfast advocacy. You will be deeply missed Madam President. pic.twitter.com/MS40stQOFt
— Joseph Abruzzo (@SenatorAbruzzo) June 9, 2020
“State Sen. Gwen Margolis made history,” added now U.S. Rep. Darren Soto. “Honored to serve with her. Rest In Peace Madam President.”
State Sen Gwen Margolis made history as 1st female Fla Senate President, was champion of women’s rights including #ERA, & delivered well for growing Miami-Dade. Honored to serve with her. Rest In Peace Madam President 🇺🇸 ☀️ ☮️ https://t.co/fUG0iADIGa
— Rep. Darren Soto (@RepDarrenSoto) June 9, 2020
Added former Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, “Rest in peace Madam President. Thank you for your service to our great state.”
— Jeff Kottkamp (@JeffKottkamp) June 9, 2020
Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate and U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham also added remarks. “Rest In Peace, Senator,” Graham wrote. “You served Florida with integrity and commitment to her people. Thank you.”
Rest In Peace, Senator. You served Florida with integrity and commitment to her people. Thank you.
Former Senate President Gwen Margolis dies at 85. https://t.co/25bHXtTq6C
— Gwen Graham (@GwenGraham) June 9, 2020
Lobbyist Ron Book said he’s known Margolis from when he was a child before she started her legislative career.
“She used to just get pleasure — when I would walk into her office with a client, a friend — she always felt like she had to start the conversation by telling people that she carpooled me to school when I was in kindergarten and first grade. I mean that’s how long I’ve known her,” Book said.
“It’s always been funny to me over all these years.”
Book said Margolis represented a bygone era of the Florida political scene.
“She knew how to get people to work together,” Book added, “and she knew that you didn’t have to put your name on something to get the credit. If at the end of the day the issue became law, that’s what mattered. If it was worth pursuing, it didn’t matter who got the credit.”