ST. PETERSBURG — With the District 55 primary less than three weeks away, the last thing state Democratic Rep. Darryl Rouson needed was Republican Gov. Charlie Crist taking his side on a statewide issue that could change public education forever.
But that's exactly what happened last week when Crist announced his support for Amendment 5, a measure that would repeal most property taxes for schools but would require the Legislature to find $11-billion a year to replace it.
Rouson, a former Republican who has been trying to prove his devotion to the Democratic Party since he switched parties earlier this year, already had mouths yapping about his support of the controversial measure. Crist's endorsement would only make it easier for his critics to paint him as an elephant in donkey's clothing.
Yet, for the most part, the exact opposite has happened.
Even though local and state Democratic leaders say they are leaning toward denouncing Amendment 5, the party has not yet taken an official stance against the measure. Rouson's relationship with Crist should be regarded as an advantage, said Pinellas Democratic chairwoman Toni Molinaro.
"As a party, we have different colleagues who fall on different sides of the aisle according to these amendments," Molinaro said.
And the state and local teacher's unions, which oppose the measure but endorse Rouson, said their support remains secure.
"When you are dealing with someone running for office, you have to look at their support on a wide range of issues," said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, which backs Rouson. "We may not agree with him on this specific amendment, but we worked with Rep. Rouson in the past and our decision was made on the basis of our ongoing relationship with him and on the basis of his general support for public education issues."
In a race between a former Republican and a longtime educator, it's no surprise that education has become a central issue in the District 55 primary.
The Rev. Charles McKenzie, Rouson's opponent, was a teacher for nearly two decades. Recently let go from Pinellas County schools, McKenzie is still widely considered a champion for public education. He supports higher salaries for teachers, getting rid of grades for schools and a greater focus on student achievement versus FCAT scores.
Amendment 5 is at best dangerous, McKenzie said.
"Amendment 5 is a direct assault on the school children of District 55 and their parents," he said. "It will increase the sales tax burden on all our working families."
He also doesn't trust the Legislature to find the funding.
"You can call it a conspiracy theory if you want," he said. "There are many people in this Legislature who want to dismantle the public education system."
Rouson said Amendment 5 will clear the way for the tax relief voters have been asking for.
"I don't want to rob public education of one penny," he said. "I will fight with every ounce of me to secure public funding at a greater level than where it is now."
Rouson's stance against another controversial education measure has also helped him retain supporters.
Both Rouson and McKenzie oppose Amendment 9, which seeks to revive former Gov. Jeb Bush's school voucher program. It would also require school districts to spend at least 65 percent of their money in classrooms.
The Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association would prefer that Rouson opposes Amendment 5, said executive director Jade Moore.
But if Rouson supported Amendment 9, Moore said, "that would certainly cause a number of our members to withdraw their support of him."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or [email protected]