Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Gwen Margolis: she thrived as a career Democrat while her party was in steep decline ... by gimleteye

Gwen Margolis, a fixture in Miami-Dade Democratic politics for over 40 years, recently announced her retirement. Senator Margolis' accomplishments have been duly noted by the mainstream media. Although what follows is a critical review, it is important to condition the criticism with an acknowledgement that being in the fray of Florida politics requires a special and hardened constitution.

In her long career Senator Margolis served as a longtime member of Miami-Dade County Board of County Commissioners and a term as board chair. I am not so familiar with her work in the state legislature: this reflection is based as a result of observing her service in Miami-Dade County.

Margolis' base was comprised of urbane, affluent and and mainly white population of the North Miami condo canyons. In Balkanized Miami-Dade County, she was attentive to constituent relations, the daily bread and butter of local politics.

Her real power base, though, had less to do with constituents in areas that were developed than in areas that weren't.

It is not a complicated riddle; how county politics work. Gwen Margolis' career tracked the riddle. Political energy depends on money. For Democrats and Republicans alike, the most ready source of money comes from developers who need support for zoning changes, big farmers and rock miners who need protection from environmental rules and regulations. It is a pattern that repeats throughout Florida.

When it came to growth of suburbs at the expense of the environment, Gwen Margolis was all-in. Her career in that respect tracks the fatal flaw of a county legislature drawn from districts instead of the broad electorate. Put another way, local elected officials who represent urban districts, like Margolis, gravitate toward power centers that organize around suburban sprawl and its charter branches: agriculture and rock mining that are precursor economic engines to zero lot line housing.

In her political career, Margolis was a friend to rock miners, to developers and to land bankers/ farmers, and if one were to inquire, she would count these relationships as assets to her base. The logic doesn't follow, because growth does not "pay its own way" in Florida. Property taxes, viewed in the light, are a scheme to shift the costs of roads, police and fire protection, parks and schools onto the backs of urban taxpayers in order to promote growth in undeveloped zones even though those same services inside urban corridors are lagging.

Margolis was a reliable vote for moving the Miami-Dade County urban development boundary, such as required in the 1990s to advance the Homestead Air Force Base redevelopment scheme; an example I'll return to in a moment.

In Florida, the mother's milk of local politics may be constituent relations, but the heroin is zoning changes, land use regulations, and pole-vaulting environmental rules that inhibit growth.

Take Everglades restoration, for example. This massive, multi-billion dollar exercise in rehabilitating a badly damaged ecosystem is viewed as a principal responsibility of federal and state agencies. Taxpayers are rightly angry and frustrated at the high cost and seemingly endless delays in delivering promised benefits. One of the projects cited most often; the Modified Water Delivery Project in the East Everglades.

Mod Waters, as it is known, was conceived in the 1980's to do two things: re-hydrate the eastern edge of the Everglades that flows to Florida Bay and, at the same time, provide a buffer to encroaching development from the west. The fact that Mod Waters has taken decades to complete is a major irritant to the entire Everglades restoration project, but what is overlooked in the recriminations over massive budget shortfalls and delays is the role of local Miami-Dade county politics.

The reason for the delay: one community, "The 8.5 Square Mile Area", inserted itself squarely in the middle of the planning and funding challenges, claiming vested rights for flood protection. The 8.5 Square Mile Area was the Miami-Dade equivalent of the west Broward community of Weston: it stuck like a sore thumb straight into the geography and hydrology of former Everglades wetlands.

While federal and state agencies struggled to define the work-around of the 8.5 Square Mile Area, a few dozen residents became a few dozen more, and more and more because Miami-Dade county would not crack down on the intrusion. Resident activists had more than a sympathetic ear at the Miami-Dade County Commission: as recently as the mid-2000's they had unprecedented access to the county commission. One reason: for most of the 1990's at least, two county commissioners had property ownership there as speculative investments outside their districts: Pedro Reboredo and Gwen Margolis.

My impressions of Gwen Margolis were in the 1990's, when she was a Miami-Dade county commissioner and served for a time a chair of the commission. During that decade and beyond, I lead opposition to the attempted give-away by the Miami-Dade County Commission of the Homestead Air Force Base to politically connected insiders assembled from the board of directors of the Latin Builders Association.

Margolis was a solid vote in favor of the insider deal opposed by environmentalists who eventually succeeded in securing a delay in the transfer by the Clinton White House to complete a supplemental environmental study since the first one was clearly deficient. I had organized and obtained permission from the county for a press conference outside County Hall. The day of the press conference, permission was revoked. 

I couldn't get an answer from county staff; who had iced the request? I found out later it was Commissioner Margolis after receiving a call from Big Sugar, the meddler of first rank in Florida; in particular, the Fanjuls' lobbyist at the time, Jorge Domincis. Big Sugar had nothing to do with the Homestead Air Force Base deal, except that Sierra Club was involved. 

A few years later, at one of the Democratic Party events where she is a fixture, Senator Margolis said to me apropos of the air base, "I don't see anything so wrong with that ... they should be able to build something", she told me.

I understood what Senator Margolis meant: she was a transactional politician. All along, the Clinton White House viewed the air base transfer as leverage with a valuable political constituency: wealthy Republican developers who were, also, Cuban American. By the way, Senator Bob Graham was also on Margolis' side of the great divide, as virtually every Democratic politician in South Florida.

Margolis' career also tracks what happens when values of the Democratic Party are submerged beneath transactional aims of power accumulation; that's a process that has Florida Democrats tripping over themselves to be more like Republicans. 

(So far as the air base deal being a litmus test for environmental values of the first order, the point didn't register politically until another group of Republicans became involved: wealthy residents of Ocean Reef in Key Largo who were furious at an industrial development that would have turned their enclave into a sacrifice zone for commercial aviation.)

There is a longer and deeper study to be done of this period, and in particular of the failure of the Democratic party during the Clinton years to cultivate new leaders and champions of Democratic causes beyond the rote learning of traditional support. Instead, those who hoped for Democrats with backbone got horse traders in suburban sprawl.

A party that does not clearly articulate or defend its values cannot be counted on as a reliable ally when individual, specific values come under attack. There are many voters who have given up on the Democratic Party for just this reason. This is not to assign blame to Senator Margolis who was not just a survivor; she thrived as a Democrat at a time the Democratic party in Florida was in steep decline.


Anonymous said...

Typically in the party she got ahead by leading from behind...Go along and got along.

During her BCC tenure who was it that got in hot water when they made the remark the BCC included " a Cripple a jew and a black" ? (to paraphrase) . Ironic it was a similar remark which did her in..

Anonymous said...

"A party that does not clearly articulate or defend its values cannot be counted on as a reliable ally when individual, specific values come under attack. There are many voters who have given up on the Democratic Party for just this reason."

I think you just explained why so many people have given up on both party's and embrace der Fuerer Trump.

Really sad.

Anonymous said...

and while I'm thinking about Larry Hawkins, how is it neither of them every seem to have the visible means of support which afforded them their million dollar condos?

Anonymous said...

Very VERY good question.

Anonymous said...

If you'd spent time around Sen. Margolis in the past couple of years, you would not be surprised by the recent slip.