Rouson's party switching concerns some Democratic leaders

State House candidate Darryl Rouson greets supporters at Kismet Old School Cafe in St. Petersburg during a campaign mixer last month.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

State House candidate Darryl Rouson greets supporters at Kismet Old School Cafe in St. Petersburg during a campaign mixer last month.

In his bid for state office, newly born-again Democrat Darryl Rouson has secured the endorsement of the Democratic incumbent, rallied dozens of passionate campaign volunteers and established a campaign platform that touches on key party issues such as education, diversity and crime prevention.

But Democrats say the St. Petersburg attorney still has ways to go to convince some party leaders of his political loyalties if he hopes to win the District 55 House seat. They say Rouson's inconsistent political leanings have sparked debate about whether the former Republican would faithfully represent the traditionally Democratic district.

"To suddenly become a Democrat is what makes some of the local leaders concerned," said Pat Liebert, president of the Sarasota County Democratic committee. "It seems a little too convenient. There is just a question about where his real allegiance lies."

Rouson, who said he refuses to pander to either political party, isn't too worried about the scrutiny. On Election Day, voters will either select his name because they believe in his potential or they won't, he said.

"People who really know Rouson, they know you cannot pigeon-hole Rouson with a label," he said. "I will be true to the people who elect me."

The hasty District 55 election comes on the heels of Rep. Frank Peterman's appointment as the new secretary for the state's Department of Juvenile Justice. Rouson's challengers include party loyalists St. Petersburg council member Earnest Williams and educator Charles McKenzie.

Originally a longtime Democrat, Rouson said he became a Republican in 2005 because he was tired of being taken for granted by the other party. Prior to that, he declined to register with either party during his tenure as president of the local NAACP chapter from 2000 to 2005.

But when he made up his mind to run for the District 55 seat he reregistered as a Democrat.

"I had people all over the district saying to me, 'look, Rouson, we are diehard, yellow-dog Democrats,' " he said. "These are folks who would never vote for a Republican."

Now, party insiders say Rouson will have to convince voters that his opportunism is an asset.

"To some people it is an egregious sin to have gone to the other side and come back," said Toni Molinaro, chairwoman of the Pinellas Democratic Party. "He has got some really powerful Republican friends, but to me that makes him a powerful politician. Those are allies he is going to want to keep."

This isn't the first time Rouson has had to redefine himself.

Before he was known as a successful lawyer with friends in the Governor's Mansion, he battled a crack cocaine addiction for 14 years.

After his second wife, the mother of his first son, died from cancer and he spent most of her $80,000 life insurance policy on drugs, he finally checked into a rehabilitation facility in 1998.

"I prayed to God, heal me or kill me, and he healed me," he said of overcoming his checkered past.

Once clean, Rouson began a new life. He started off homeless, sleeping in the law offices of friends with his oldest son as he rebuilt his law practice.

His election to president of the NAACP in 2000 gave him the platform he needed to create a name for himself. He became a quick ally to Charlie Crist and Mayor Rick Baker and grew well-known for his high-profile tactics.

In 2004, Rouson demanded a local tobacco shop stop selling paraphernalia for illegal drugs under the guise of tobacco accessories. After he refused to leave the store, he was arrested for trespassing. A year later, he called for Midtown to secede from St. Petersburg in an attempt to draw attention to the challenges facing the low-income area.

As a legislator, he said he will be just as boisterous in defending the needs of his constituents, regardless of his party affiliation.

"When Rouson finishes his term you won't have to ask what he did," he said. "I'm going to bring the bacon home. No, don't say bacon. Say steak. I'm going to bring filet mignon."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Rouson's party switching concerns some Democratic leaders 03/08/08 [Last modified: Saturday, March 8, 2008 5:02am]

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