Friday, April 20, 2018
Politics

Florida House Democrats oust Darryl Rouson as next leader

TALLAHASSEE — Florida House Democrats voted 24-17 to replace Rep. Darryl Rouson as their next leader Monday night after a majority concluded that the party was too divided under him.

The decision caps a precipitous fall for Rouson, who was elected to the post by his colleagues in February. On a larger scale, it casts even more doubt about the ability of the state Democratic Party and its leaders to mount a serious challenge to the better-organized Republicans.

Rouson, 59, of St. Petersburg hurried his demise by creating a fundraising committee last month that only he could control. He created the committee without alerting other party leaders, and Democratic Party chairwoman Allison Tant fired two staffers over the incident.

"I respect the will of the caucus members," Rouson told reporters after a three-hour, closed-door meeting. Later he added: "I'm a little disappointed but undaunted."

Current House Minority Leader Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale said Democrats would vote on a new leader Wednesday.

Rouson, a former Republican who boasts ties to former governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, struggled to coalesce Democrats from the start. He needed two ballots to secure the support of a majority of the 44 elected House Democrats and faced almost immediate questions about his loyalties.

During a June caucus meeting, he fended off criticism that his consultant has worked with Republicans and that he had not done more to work with key Democratic constituencies like the Florida Education Association. Rouson also remained a potential crossover vote in the Republican-dominated House.

Heading into Monday's meeting, Democrats said they were fed up with internal squabbling.

Rouson's ouster was led by freshman lawmakers, many of whom are involved in tight re-election fights. Rep. David Richardson of Miami Beach made the motion to "vacate" the position of incoming Democratic leader. Rep. Ricardo Rangel of Orlando seconded the motion.

House members then cast votes by secret ballot.

Several people already have been discussed as possible replacements, including Rep. Janet Cruz of Tampa, Rep. Mia Jones of Jacksonville, Rep. Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach and Rep. Alan Williams of Tallahassee.

Pafford said Monday night he will run for the post, which covers the 2015 and 2016 legislative sessions.

"There may be squabbles; we're under the limelight," Pafford said. "But I think we're all on the same page."

In an interview after the vote, Rouson said he should have told more of his colleagues about the creation of the party-related fundraising committee — a type of committee that Democrats in the past have opposed.

"I maybe should have called in a few more members, that it might have been handled a little bit differently," Rouson said.

Yet he also remained defiant, suggesting he might even run for the post his colleagues just stripped him of.

Earlier Monday, he also attacked state party leaders and said he isn't confident in Tant's leadership. "Why would you put your money in a failing bank?" Rouson said.

All of it made good comedy for Republicans.

"Is Allison Tant purging someone that is better at raising coin than her?" Republican Party of Florida chairman Lenny Curry posted on Twitter late Monday, with the phrase "public civil war."

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet, Mary Ellen Klas and Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.

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