ST. PETERSBURG — Darryl Rouson, the hard-charging attorney and former head of the local NAACP, beat out two other contenders Tuesday in the Democratic primary to replace former Rep. Frank Peterman in the state Legislature.
"The people have said that they want bold and creative leadership," Rouson, 52, said Tuesday night from a celebration with supporters at the Boys & Girls Club in Midtown. "I'm just excited."
Rouson won 44 percent of the vote, beating activist and educator Charles McKenzie with 30 percent and St. Petersburg City Council member Earnest Williams with 25 percent.
District 55, where nearly two-thirds of voters are Democrats, includes parts of four counties: Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota. Pinellas residents make up two-thirds of the district's 44,529 Democrats.
Rouson, who was a Republican before he decided to run, will face write-in candidate Calvester Benjamin-Anderson in the general election April 15. If he wins, Rouson will finish out Peterman's term before facing a regular election in the fall.
McKenzie, 51, was encouraged by Tuesday's results, saying he would consider challenging Rouson in an August primary.
"We ran a very hard campaign on a very small budget, compared to what our opponents had, and we did an excellent job with it," McKenzie said. "I think I did well enough tonight to certainly inspire me to run again."
McKenzie spent about $10,300 on the campaign, compared to $43,500 for Rouson and $21,500 for Williams, according to the most recent reports to the state division of elections.
McKenzie was the least known candidate in the race, having moved to St. Petersburg, the district's heart, less than two years ago. A state coordinator for Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition, he lived in Sarasota for more than 20 years. He won the most votes in Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties.
Williams said Tuesday night that he wished Rouson well, putting a gracious finish on a campaign that had turned so personal that at one point the St. Petersburg Police Department investigated a threat of physical violence.
During the campaign, Williams, 61, brought up Rouson's past as a Republican and a crack cocaine addict.
He would not directly rule out running for the seat in the fall.
"It's really premature for me to even talk about running at this point," said Williams, who will resign from the City Council in April. "I just want to decompress a little bit and spend some time with the family."
Gov. Charlie Crist called the special election on Feb. 13, just six weeks before Tuesday's primary, after appointing Peterman to head the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. Peterman endorsed Rouson.
The primary brought out 5,470 voters, or 12.3 percent of those eligible. Turnout was highest in Pinellas at 13.9 percent, 4,112 voters.
"We always wish it was a higher turnout, but that's substantial turnout for this type of election," said Nancy Whitlock, a spokeswoman for the Pinellas County supervisor of elections, explaining that the shortened campaign and unusual date of special elections lead to fewer voters casting ballots. "I'd say anything above 10 (percent) is good."
Stephanie Garry can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2374.