Little more than six weeks after state Rep. Frank Peterman was chosen to lead the Department of Juvenile Justice, voters will replace him in a special election on March 25. The three men who aspire to represent his St. Petersburg-based district bring records of high-profile activism, but each also has political liabilities. We believe one, attorney and former St. Petersburg NAACP president Darryl Rouson, offers a mix of personal vigor and political connections that could serve his constituents best.
House District 55 is a geographically contorted invention, drawn through four different counties to link African-American communities. More than half the district's 70,000 voters are black and nearly two-thirds are Democrat. Given the Republican grip on the Legislature, voters will want to look for a representative who can be heard.
The choice in this special Democratic primary is not an easy one. Earnest Williams, an insurance agent, has been a steady member of the St. Petersburg City Council over the past seven years. But his campaign has been a major disappointment. He has chosen mainly to impugn his opponents, and his lack of energy does not bode well for the office. Charles McKenzie, a teacher and minister, has led the state Rainbow PUSH Coalition and fought for farmworker rights. But his activist roots are deepest in Sarasota and Manatee counties, leaving him less familiar with the largest portion of the district.
To be sure, Rouson comes with risks and concerns. He can be bombastic, even when his public stunts seem to undermine his cause. More worrisome, he has sometimes blurred the line between public and personal interest — as appeared to be the case in 2004 when he protested the lack of black attorneys receiving lucrative city government bond counsel work. The Williams attack on Rouson's past drug problems, though, is unfair. Rouson has openly discussed his past addiction, and the turnaround in his life — clean now for a decade — is an inspirational story.
Peterman, a calm and reflective man, has endorsed Rouson to be his successor in this race and his reason is worth repeating. He views Rouson as a fighter who knows the problems the people in District 55 face. Rouson did in fact pump new life into the local NAACP chapter, he fought neighborhood drug dealers and he helped bring new businesses into St. Petersburg's Midtown. As a member of the constitutionally empaneled Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, he also has a head start on the state's systemic financial problems. He would eliminate many sales tax exemptions as a way to reduce property taxes and make the sales tax more equitable.
Our support of Rouson is, to be perfectly candid, not without hesitation. But in this election he has managed to gain the support of an impressive list of community, business and political leaders, and that counts for something. His friendship with Republican Gov. Charlie Crist doesn't hurt either, particularly for a district whose representative is easily ignored.
We think Rouson has earned the chance to show voters in House District 55 that he will be in their corner. The Times recommends him.