Lorraine Margeson: Walking the walk 

The environmental activist is running for St. Pete City Council.

Lorraine Margeson is known to have an opinion or two, so she hasn’t been shy in telling anyone within earshot over the past year that if she were living in St. Petersburg’s District 2, she would throw her proverbial hat in the ring against incumbent Jim Kennedy, who was running unopposed in his re-election bid for City Council. But she assumed that she lived in District 3, where Bill Dudley was just re-elected a year ago. So she kept on doing what she does, fighting for the causes that she believes in. And for her latest endeavor, working for the Stop the Lens campaign, she’s finally getting paid for her advocacy work, serving as office manager at the campaign’s headquarters on 4th Street North.

But when she received her voter ID card in mid-June and learned that she in fact did live in District 2 (because of re-districting), she had a quick decision to make. Was she ready to get involved in the political process from the other side of the dais?

As someone who has challenged the City Council, the Pinellas County Commission, Tampa Bay Water and a host of other local and state agencies regarding the environment over the past two decades, here was her chance. So after consulting with her husband and a few close friends, she decided it wasn’t enough to complain about what was wrong. She had to stand up and try to fix it.

So say hello to Lorraine Margeson, candidate for City Council in District 2.

A city clerk rejected her initial entry into the race, disputing whether she had lived in the district for 12 straight months, which all candidates must do according to the city charter.

So Margeson called St. Pete Polls founder Matt Florell, who has frequently blogged about the residency requirement issues. He advised her to challenge the clerk’s ruling, which she did, successfully. But since he was doing a poll that night, he decided to insert her name vs. Kennedy, even though most of the public wasn’t even aware she was running.

The results? The two were in a virtual tie, with both just below 22 percent (56 percent were undecided).

Florell says he was surprised by the results, considering he had done a poll for Pinski Politics two weeks earlier with two other hypothetical challengers who scored lower.

Margeson attributes that relatively impressive first showing to her name recognition. In addition to the many times she’s been quoted in the local media on environmental issues, she’s also worked alongside a lot of folks in the 26 years since she moved to St. Pete from New York City and became immediately involved in trying to clean up her neighborhood along N. 34th Street.

But she says she’s met “thousands more” just in the past half-year through her involvement with Stop The Lens, the activist group formed late last summer to force a vote on whether the citizenry of St. Pete wanted to endorse the Lens design to replace the aging inverted pyramid structure. Their formulation came just around the time that the St. Pete City Council rejected a petition drive by another group (VoteOnThePier.com) that would have allowed citizens to vote to maintain the iconic mold.

For Margeson, the issue is simple: the waterfront in St. Pete is sacrosanct, and any major change to it should always go before the voters.

Stressing that she speaks for herself and not for Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, Margeson says that she never thought it was a wise idea for the city and county to approve an amendment to provide $50 million in Tax Increment Financing funds to rebuild the Pier.

Although the city recently re-opened the facility for citizens to fish, all of the stores inside the Pier are closed right now. Margeson would reopen them. “Why not use what we’ve got, give some people a way to make a living?” She adds that she’s “astounded” that the St. Pete Chamber of Commerce was “absolutely down with so many people losing work.”

She says the City Council’s stance on pushing ahead on the Lens while the opposition grew is emblematic of that body’s refusal to listen to the public, but grows uncharacteristically quiet when asked if she includes Jim Kennedy in that criticism. “I am not a negative campaigner,” she vows, but says whether it’s the Pier or red-light cameras, the council hasn’t been responsive to the public.

“You have to listen to the people. Your job is not to dictate. Your job is to listen, and then gather the information from all of your constituents, and then make a decision that moves the city forward in a united manner,” she says.

Margeson is a native New Yorker who realized in her mid-20s that she was never going to be wealthy enough to thrive in Manhattan. So, because her parents lived in Palm Harbor, she came to Pinellas County in 1987 and was blown away. “Blue skies, brown pelicans. You can’t beat this,” she thought.

And she says that’s why the Pier is such an issue for her. She says she’s never been anti-development, and expects more condominiums to dot the downtown area. She’s impressed by how chic downtown St. Pete has become.

Margeson takes pride in doing her homework before acting on an issue, so she expresses initial reluctance to delve into the morass that is the Tampa Bay Rays stadium soap opera. But her philosophy is pretty simple — she’d let the team speak to whoever it wants, and doesn’t think that a penny of public funds should be devoted to building a new stadium for the MLB franchise.

Margeson is known best for her environmental work (the Times’ Jeff Klinkenberg called her “Tampa Bay’s best-known environmental activist” in a 2010 profile). The interesting thing is that she wasn’t all that tuned into nature until she and her husband built their house in the Northeast back in the late 1980s. That’s when they cleared the property of 275 Brazilian pepper trees and installed native plants. She started watching birds from her fourth-floor deck, contacted the Audubon Society, and got involved. Seriously involved.

She’s been named conservationist of the year by the St. Petersburg Audubon Society and the Pinellas Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society, and environmentalist of the year by the city of St. Pete.

Elizabeth Forys, an Eckerd College professor of environmental science and biology, began working with Margeson on the Suncoast Shorebird Partnership, a group of academics, beach managers and volunteers who work together to research and manage beach-dependent birds.

“Lorraine was in charge of an area in Pinellas that is pretty rough, and yet she convinced a wide variety of people from the area to help her,” Forys wrote to CL in an email. “From the guy who made gravestones to a mechanic at an auto dealership — she managed to win them over to help the environment. This ability to bring very different people together is one of her gifts.”

So what can we expect from this activist as she tries to become part of the establishment?

“I will guarantee you,” Margeson promises, “this is not going to be boring.”

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