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Florida Democrats' infighting escalates with firing of two staffers

TALLAHASSEE — Just what the Florida Democratic Party needs: more disarray, firings, infighting.

Chairwoman Allison Tant fired two high-ranking staff members late Thursday, the same day it was reported she discovered the existence of a fundraising committee that could be controlled only by incoming House Minority Leader Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.

The shake-up is just the latest sign that as the party heads into next year's elections hoping to win back the governor's office and gain a few more seats in the Legislature, leaders are mired in bitter turf wars.

Gone are Jeff Ryan and Chris Mitchell, the party's chief staffers behind financing and strategy of House races. The pair helped set up the committee with Rouson without Tant's consent.

"This is an overreaction by the party and retaliatory in nature," said Mitchell, 29, who served two years as chairman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party before getting tapped by Rouson seven months ago to serve as political director. "I'm a little disappointed."

Rep. Reggie Fullwood, D-Jacksonville, said Ryan's fundraising acumen will be missed, but Tant had no choice.

"I hate to see Jeff go," Fullwood said. "He's been a great resource, but he should have known better. He had a responsibility to give Allison a heads-up. This is a move she had to make."

The personnel decisions provide an increasingly not-so-rare glimpse of internal strife within a party that's struggling to compete statewide against Republicans.

Tant took over as state chairwoman in January after defeating Hillsborough County Democratic state committeeman Alan Clendenin in a close campaign. Rouson and Mitchell publicly supported Clendenin's bid.

The following month, Rouson narrowly defeated Rep. Mia Jones of Jacksonville to be House Democratic leader for the 2014 and 2016 campaigns. Since then, Rouson, a former Republican, has had his leadership openly challenged by other Democrats.

Tant, meanwhile, has had missteps, including quickly endorsing a candidate for chief financial officer last month, only to see him drop out after his personal bankruptcies were made public.

Rouson said he opened the committee to better raise money for candidates. Although Democratic leaders say Rouson has agreed to close the committee, Rouson hasn't confirmed he will.

Rouson slammed Tant for sending a letter Thursday alerting all Democratic House members that the party preferred the existing committees that it controls. Party spokesman Joshua Karp said the letter was intended to inform members that Rouson was making changes to current fundraising practices, and that Tant prefers existing practices.

Many Florida Republicans tweeted in glee over the backbiting. On the quality of Rouson's leadership, Republican strategist Rick Wilson tweeted, "That reminds me I need to send him a check."

Contact Michael Van Sickler at (850) 224-7263 or mvansickler@tampabay.com.

Florida Democrats' infighting escalates with firing of two staffers 09/06/13 [Last modified: Friday, September 6, 2013 10:23pm]
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