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House candidates trade shots, then take a civil turn

At lunch, they verbally attacked each other.

By evening, it appeared they had cooled down.

After a heated Suncoast Tiger Bay luncheon where two of the candidates in the District 55 state House race traded insults, the political hopefuls were surprisingly civil to each other hours later during a second candidates forum.

The event, held at the Studio@620 on Wednesday evening, highlighted the similarities between Democratic candidates Darryl Rouson, Earnest Williams and Charles McKenzie, even as the men took pains to point out their differences.

All three said they support free speech events such as St. Pete Pride, affordable housing, funding for education and suicide prevention, the continued separation of church and state, adoption rights for gay couples, and alternative energy research.

McKenzie, an educator and community activist who previously lived in Sarasota and worked in Manatee County, said he was the only candidate to have served in every part of the district.

"We all are all very capable men," he said, adding, "I have a record of accomplishment."

Williams, the only candidate to have been elected to public office, pointed to his nearly 10 years of service on the City Council.

"We have a good record," he said. "It's not, 'I will do that, I'm going to do that.' I have done that."

The display of good manners stood in contrast to the heated debate during the Tiger Bay luncheon earlier that day, where Rouson and Williams took swipes at each other.

Williams, a State Farm insurance agent, attacked Rouson's past crack cocaine addiction and his two years as a registered Republican. Rouson, an attorney and former local NAACP leader, fired back with shots at Williams' ties to the insurance industry.

Less than six hours later, Williams and Rouson greeted each other outside the Studio@620 before the debate began.

More than 100 people showed up to pose questions to the candidates, who are vying for the state House seat vacated by Rep. Frank Peterman. A special primary election will be held March 25. A Republican has not entered the race.

Rouson, who switched parties to run for the state House seat, denounced accusations that he would return to the GOP if elected.

Williams fielded a question that he had lied about an endorsement from City Council Chairman Jamie Bennett on his election fliers. Williams said he could not comment until he had spoken with Bennett.

Bennett, who has sat with Williams on the St. Petersburg council for nearly a decade, said later that he has not endorsed anyone and that he plans to remain neutral.

"He is a good friend. I think he would make a great legislator," Bennett said of Williams, before adding that he is also good friends with Rouson. Bennett said if he could endorse both candidates, he would.

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

House candidates trade shots, then take a civil turn 03/15/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2008 9:57am]
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