In Senate District 35, Experience vs. vigor as Gwen Margolis faces newcomer

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The first female president of the state Senate is facing a well-financed challenger in her South Florida seat, putting more than three decades of experience against a youthful neophyte saying the district needs new leadership, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

John Couriel, a political newcomer, has surprised many in his bid for the Senate District 35 seat by outraising incumbent Sen. Gwen Margolis, an Aventura Democrat, in her third tour in the Senate. While Margolis is a local fixture running in a district favorable to Democrats, the fundraising numbers have still attracted attention in the closing weeks of the campaign.

For Couriel, 34, the race comes down to fresh blood against what he calls the “politics of the past.” Margolis, 78, won her first legislative race in 1974 and has held elected office almost without interruption ever since.

“She first ran for office during the Nixon Administration, and I think even very good things have to come to an end at some time,” Couriel said.

But Margolis is unbowed, saying she’s confident she will continue a political career that began before Couriel was born.

“I’m polling fine, and frankly all he’s done is attack me for the past two to three weeks,” she said.

It’s an unlikely target for a Republican endorsed by former Gov. Jeb Bush, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and the Florida Chamber of Commerce. (The chamber’s sometimes-kindred organization, Associated Industries of Florida, went with Margolis.)

The district begins in Aventura and runs south, largely to the east of U.S. Hwy. 1, stopping just inside Homestead. Almost 45 percent of registered voters were Democrats in 2010; around 27 percent were Republicans.

President Barack Obama won the district by 21 points in his 2008 presidential campaign; former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink carried it by about the same margin in her 2010 gubernatorial bid. The numbers don’t scare Couriel, who said he’s hearing from Democrats and independents who favor him.

“I think that I know my voters, I know my neighbors and I know what issues really matter down here,” he said.

The son of Cuban immigrants — his father moved to the United States in 1961 as part of Operation Pedro Pan — Couriel was a lawyer in New York when he got an offer to come back to Miami in 2009 and serve as assistant U.S. attorney, handling Medicare fraud and identity theft cases.

He’s running on a platform of economic development through strengthening the area’s research universities and trade schools and taking other steps to draw businesses to the area. And he repeatedly stresses the need for a legislator with “vigor” to represent the area in the Senate.

“It’s not time for a representative who is seeking a graceful retirement, quite frankly,” he said.

While Couriel has outraised Margolis in contributions, she has loaned her campaign $160,000; when that’s accounted for, she has an edge — her campaign had raised more than $334,000, compared to a little less than $214,000 for Couriel, who has thrown in a little more than $6,000 his own money and in-kind contributions.

“I’m not a big ‘ask people for money’ person,” Margolis said.

And she’s counting on her longtime ties to the community and her experience to help carry her through. Margolis first tour in the Legislature lasted from her election to the House in 1974 until the end of her Senate presidency in 1992. After nearly a decade on the Miami-Dade County Commission, she ran for the Senate again in 2002, served for six years, left, and returned after running again in 2010.

Margolis says her institutional knowledge from those years of service is invaluable in a Legislature where term limits mean fewer and fewer members know what policy prescriptions have been tried before and proven to be problematic.

“I’ve been watching it erode, and that’s very distressing to me,” she said.

And Margolis said she’s gotten several calls from voters who are ignoring her critics, including an independent mailer tying her to Obama’s health-care overhaul.

“I know that the people in my district know me,” she said.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including,,, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.