ST. PETERSBURG — They're two fraternity brothers who share a passion for economic development and community pride. But their bitter rivalry for a state house seat has created friction within the city's predominantly black neighborhoods.
Community leaders say the feud between Earnest Williams and Darryl Rouson for the House District 55 seat could draw out voters during Tuesday's special primary election.
But the tensions also may cost two of St. Petersburg's most successful black leaders some votes.
"All this mudslinging, it turns people off," said Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter, a community activist. "They want to fight and argue and put one another down instead of putting their heads together to turn things around for people."
More than half of the district's 70,000 voters are black and nearly two-thirds are Democrats. The seat includes part of four different counties: Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota.
Both Williams and Rouson are Democrats, as is a third candidate vying for the seat, Charles S. McKenzie Jr., 51. He is a middle school teacher, a minister and state coordinator of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
The District 55 seat has been open since February when former Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg, was appointed to head the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. No Republicans are running.
Early on, political insiders had speculated that Williams, a St. Petersburg City Council member, would win over McKenzie.
But in January, Rouson, 52, a lawyer and former local NAACP leader, entered the race forcing many in the local community to reevaluate their political loyalties.
Both men operate in similar business circles, and rose to prominence with help from the city's black political machine.
Now, that group — composed of high-ranking community leaders like assistant police Chief Cedric Gordon, Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis and former City Council member David Welch — has thrown its support behind Rouson.
"Rouson is a fighter for the community. He is the one who will get things done," Welch said.
Rene Flowers, a former City Council member, has a thrown her support behind Williams, 61.
Others with multiple allegiances have taken a more measured approach.
Atwaters Cafe, a soul food restaurant popular with the city's political elite, boasts campaigns signs for all three candidates in its windows. Council Chairman Jamie Bennett declined to endorse a candidate because of his friendships with Rouson and Williams. And the St. Petersburg chapter of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, of which both Williams and Rouson are members, has banned talk of the election.
"We don't want anyone to get upset," said Watson Haynes, chaplain of the Omega chapter and a Pinellas County educator. "There is one thing called politics, and there is something else called brotherhood. You are fraternity brothers 'til you die."
Rouson and Williams' feud was thrust into the spotlight last week during a Suncoast Tiger Bay luncheon. Williams, a State Farm insurance agent, launched into a lengthy diatribe highlighting his opponent's shortcomings.
Rouson responded with a few swipes at Williams' record as an elected official. Later, the two men allegedly vowed to "beat" one another. The St. Petersburg Police Department is investigating the incident.
Both Rouson and Williams said they regret the conflict and vow to focus on the issues during the rest of the campaign.
But with less than a week before the primary, it might be too late. The angry spat shocked some voters. Businessman Ray Tampa said the squabble inspired him to take a second look at McKenzie, a newcomer to St. Petersburg.
"I consider all of them friends," said Tampa, who ultimately endorsed McKenzie. "But I'm really disappointed in the fighting going on between the two candidates. It is an embarrassment."
Cristina Silva can be reached at
(727) 893-8846 or