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Darryl Rouson: Anything but a typical politician

ST. PETERSBURG — It's halftime at a St. Petersburg Catholic High School football game, and state Rep. Darryl Rouson's campaign treasurer is offering advice on an anniversary present for his wife.

"You mean more than this?" Rouson, 53, asks mischievously, gyrating his hips back and forth in a sexual motion as a reporter watches.

It is classic Rouson: outrageous, unpredictable, completely arresting.

Rouson, who is seeking re-election to state House District 55, is the rare politician who has turned an unattractive personal history — drug addiction, bankruptcy, divorce, homelessness, civil disobedience, professional misconduct — into a triumphant tale of redemption.

Rouson, a lawyer and former community activist, enjoys wide influence. He was the only state legislator to serve on the powerful Taxation and Budget Reform Commission. His district spans four counties: Sarasota, Manatee, Pinellas and Hillsborough.

His admirers occupy the highest ranks of Florida politics: Gov. Charlie Crist, Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Frank Peterman, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker. He won 60 percent of the vote in August's Democratic primary, easily topping his lone challenger.

Rouson's hometown connections, outgoing personality and grass roots activism have helped him. But his critics take umbrage at the seeming ease with which he sidesteps controversies and obstacles.

He faces only a write-in candidate, Republican Calvester Benjamin-Anderson, in the Nov. 4 election.

Rouson, who alternated between Republican and independent for 18 years, became a Democrat last year to run in the heavily Democratic district. A Catholic, he supports school vouchers, which also irritates some Democrats.

"If he was not the Democratic candidate, I would not be supporting him," said Jim Donelon, president of the St. Petersburg Democratic Club. "He has to prove himself."

Rouson's campaign treasurer, Tom Minkoff, is a Republican lawyer and a close friend whose short-lived campaign for Pinellas County property appraiser ended over a questionable agriculture exemption.

Minkoff was there when Rouson made the sexual gesture. "Stop," yelled Minkoff. "The press is here."

But not much stops Rouson, whose difficult past has been well documented.

He was reprimanded by the Florida Bar for snooping through an opposing counsel's files during a courtroom recess in 2000.

The federal government put a lien on his home for failing to pay $361,262 in taxes in 2000. He soon filed for bankruptcy.

Former St. Petersburg City Council member Earnest Williams, Rouson's opponent in the March primary, accused him of assault after Rouson repeatedly threatened to beat him up during the campaign.

But Rouson's darkest story is the one that has defined his political career: a 19-year cocaine addiction that began when he was a law student at the University of Florida.

His first wife left him because of it. "I was not a nice guy," he said. "I would have divorced me, too."

It was only after his second wife died of cancer in 1997 that Rouson, a newly single father, got clean. His family threatened to take his oldest son away, pushing Rouson into his eighth rehab stint. It stuck.

Rouson, who lived briefly in Chicago with his second wife, returned to St. Petersburg in 1998 sober and determined to reinvent himself. He and his son slept in a friend's law office until he could rent a room. Rouson slowly built his own law practice.

Rouson is the oldest son of the late W. Ervin and Vivian Rouson. His dad was an administrator at St. Petersburg Junior College, his mom a language teacher at Lakewood Senior High. They ensured he was close with other privileged black youths, including Peterman, who decades later persuaded Rouson to run for the Legislature.

"I got a couple of calls from people who had issues with him and some areas of his life, some pretty high-ranking calls," said Peterman, who held the seat before Rouson. "I said, 'In terms of what this guy can do for the community, this is the kind of guy we need in that seat. That far outweighs his past.' "

Rouson's friends also helped him kick drugs.

"You get caught with drug possession, it will mess up your whole career," Al White, a St. Petersburg police sergeant, remembers telling Rouson in the late 1980s.

Rouson was never charged for any drug-related crimes in Florida. "Technically, I should have 30 felonies," he said.

As a boy, Rouson learned to fit in. With his white classmates at Bishop Barry High School — now St. Petersburg Catholic — he talked about Elton John. In his predominately black neighborhood, he was all about Motown.

Rouson the politician is equally diverse. He proudly shows off his bright cowboy boots but keeps his hair in a slight fade, a short, urban style. He addresses poor black neighborhoods with street slang, then drives his Mercedes to his 5,469-square-foot home in greater Pinellas Point.

He's gained a reputation as a leader who gets things done.

Rouson became president of the St. Petersburg NAACP in 2000. He elevated the group's profile through his connections, media savvy and determination.

As a lawyer, Rouson represented drug users and dealers. Privately, he confronted dealers to demand they quit. He raided area tobacco shops, gas stations and convenience stores searching for illegal drug paraphernalia. Business owners complained he was harassing them — or worse.

Four years ago, Rouson walked into the Purple Haze Tobacco and Accessories Shop on 34th St S and asked for a pipe to smoke crack. When he was asked to leave, he walked behind a display counter and allegedly shook it.

"He is a 100 percent hypocrite," said owner Leo Calzadilla. "He was collecting money from drug dealers to defend them and he gets all in my face."

A jury convicted Rouson of misdemeanor trespassing, but others praised him.

"It took real courage to really push that aggressively against people who were clearly selling drug paraphernalia," said council member Karl Nurse, who paid Rouson's fine. "That's a rare commodity in politics."

He once chained himself to a chair at City Hall when officials didn't hire him as their first black bond attorney. He has called for the secession of Midtown and criticized Baker's polices there. He came up with the idea of a state Drug Paraphernalia Abatement Task Force, which Peterman helped get through the 2007 Legislature. Most recently, Rouson put up $10,000 of his own cash to start a summer job program.

"His heart is in the right place," said Baker. "You want role models of all types."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Darryl Rouson: Anything but a typical politician 09/20/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 25, 2008 6:29pm]
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