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Fierce fight may divide Florida House Democrats

Republicans choose their Tallahassee leaders years in advance because ambition won't wait and eight-year term limits have sped up the pace.

Take Rep. Will Weatherford. The Pasco County lawmaker became House speaker last month but actually secured the job four years ago.

Democrats do it differently. They are in a fierce backstage struggle to choose a House leader for the 2014-2016 term, and things are getting testy.

Rep. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg and Rep. Mia Jones of Jacksonville are the main combatants. A third Democrat, Rep. Alan Williams of Tallahassee, joined the race last week.

This is unsettling stuff for the 24 freshman House Democrats still learning where the elevators are. They will have to take sides in a leadership fight and don't want to back the wrong horse.

For Democrats, it's a strategically important choice. Having picked up five seats in the House in November for a total of 44, they need a dynamic leader who can raise money, recruit candidates and keep the momentum going heading into 2014.

Rouson, 58, a lawyer, is one of the most skilled debaters in the House, works hard and is viewed as less overtly partisan than some fellow Democrats. His inspiring life story of recovery from drug addiction is one he's proud to tell.

But Democrats are muttering in the Capitol corridors that Rouson's pursuit of the leader's post is over the top and that he sought signed pledges of support two weekends ago at a casual caucus retreat in Fort Lauderdale.

"I feel they are being pressured to make a decision way too early," said Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach.

Rouson, who loves a good fight, said he "caught them all flat-footed" by lining up pledges.

"The only speed I know is go," he said. "I got in this race conceivably a little late."

Jones has the title of minority leader pro tem, placing her within the inner circle of Rep. Perry Thurston, the current Democratic leader. Jones, 44, a Jacksonville native, is a special assistant to Mayor Alvin Brown and refuses to solicit pledges from lawmakers.

She calls Rouson's pledge-seeking efforts "shenanigans," because the eventual vote by caucus members (likely before March) will be by secret ballot. She says Rouson "badgers" members to take sides before seeing the contenders do their jobs as legislators.

"I have been working on making them understand who I am," Jones said.

She would be the first woman to lead the House Democratic caucus since 2000, when Lois Frankel held the post. (Frankel just earned a seat in Congress.)

Rouson wants a big role in shaping elections reform. He has filed a bill to address problems with last month's vote, and in October he held a press conference with former Gov. Charlie Crist alongside.

But Thurston, as minority leader, appoints ranking members in each area, and in elections, he chose Rep. Janet Cruz of Tampa.

In case nobody but Rouson got the message, Thurston held a news conference last week to introduce Cruz as the Democrats' leader on elections matters. Rouson was nowhere in sight.

If Rouson wants to work on elections issues, Thurston said, "He will work through Rep. Cruz."

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Fierce fight may divide Florida House Democrats 12/10/12 [Last modified: Monday, December 10, 2012 10:17pm]
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