1. Florida Politics

St. Petersburg's Darryl Rouson takes Senate District 19 after Tampa foes knock each other out

The morning after he fell fewer than 100 votes short of a seat in the Florida Senate, Ed Narain's wife had one question for the soon-to-be former legislator:

Did he regret running in the Senate race instead of seeking re-election in his Florida House of Representatives district?

"I told her no, I really don't have any regrets," Narain said. "Over the last few years, I've accomplished so much.

"Not to brag, but I've gotten a lot of recognition for my service and I did a great job, which is why I feel like the Florida Senate is the next logical step."

Narain, 39, hoped to replace Sen. Arthenia Joyner, the longtime Tampa Democrat who is set to retire from politics. But instead, that seat will now likely pass across the bay to state Rep. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg.

Rouson, 61, held a slim lead after Tuesday's Democratic primary. Nearly 38,000 people voted in a newly drawn district that encompasses Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. After Friday's recounts, the elections offices in both counties show Rouson won by just 75 votes. The state is set to certify those results this week.

The redrawn District 19 is a safe Democratic district, and in the fall the winner will face an unknown Republican who has raised no money. Thus Rouson, who spent eight years in the Florida House, seems set to continue his career in the Florida Senate.

"It was a hard-fought contest," Rouson said. "I think it came down to the hard work, dedication and enthusiasm of those who volunteered and worked with me."

Winning seemed a daunting proposition for Rouson: The St. Petersburg politician was running in a district where 58 percent of the Democratic voters live in Hillsborough County, and he faced two well-known Tampa Democrats.

But Rouson beat them because those Democrats may have ended up beating each other.

• • •

Narain had only served two years in the Florida House before deciding in March to join the Senate District 19 race. At that time, two other candidates had filed: Rouson and state Rep. Betty Reed.

Rouson is well-known in St. Petersburg, but the city only comprises a quarter of the Senate district.

Reed, however, is a political fixture in Tampa. The 75-year-old legislator served eight years in the state House before endorsing Narain for her old seat when she reached her term limit in 2014.

She filed to run for the Senate seat in January 2015. Despite having up to six years left to serve in his House district, Narain said many in the community encouraged him to run for the open Senate seat. He filed his paperwork in March, entering the race to replace Joyner.

Reed told supporters and community members that she felt betrayed by Narain's decision to run against her.

Narain maintained that it was the right decision: He had monitored Reed's campaign and thought she just wasn't getting the support or momentum that she needed.

Prominent Democrats, including Joyner, threw their support behind him. The Florida Democratic Party would eventually run ads for him — a rare move in a contested primary. His fundraising would climb to more than $250,000 while Reed's never reached above $34,000.

"Sen. Joyner was also putting the squeeze on people to support Ed," Reed said. "There was people from every area pushing him and really not being supportive of me in any way, any way at all."

Augie Ribeiro, a St. Petersburg lawyer who finished last in the Democratic primary for the District 19 seat, said it was apparent that Reed did not receive any support or funding once Narain entered the race.

"Clearly, she was frozen out," Ribeiro said. "Had she had the funds and he not been in the race, it might have been a different outcome."

But despite Narain dominating the fundraising and the endorsements, Reed still earned 32 percent of the Democratic vote in Hillsborough. Narain won 40 percent.

"I think Narain may have underestimated the impact of his decision (to run against Reed) in his local community," Ribeiro said. "I think he may have misunderstood the level in which his decision really affected so many of the constituents in that district. They were upset at his decision."

The two Tampa representatives divided the Hillsborough vote: Narain garnered 8,862 votes, according to the Supervisor of Election's Office; Reed got 7,030.

"When he ran against me, that really had some of our community split," Reed said, adding that she does think he hurt both of their chances by deciding to run.

Had the county not been split, a single Hillsborough candidate would have been in a far better position to defeat a Pinellas opponent. About 22,000 Hillsborough voters turned out for the primary, compared with nearly 16,000 in Pinellas.

The effect of Narain's decision to jump to the Senate race instead of seeking re-election in the House was felt substantially in that tight-knit Tampa community, Ribeiro said.

"Her supporters were not going to leave her to support Narain, under any circumstances," Ribeiro said. "And he may have needed some of those supporters."

• • •

Rouson refused to speculate as to how the election might have turned had he faced only one Tampa candidate. He was also quick to point out that he faced an opponent in St. Petersburg: Ribeiro.

Rouson easily won Pinellas, landing 8,327 votes in the county. His self-funded Pinellas-based opponent, Ribeiro, spent nearly $700,000 and scooped up 4,308 votes.

"This race had two in St. Pete and two in Tampa," Rouson said. "I think it canceled out a lot. In the end, it came down to who was able to connect the most with voters."

Ribeiro, 52, did pick up a quarter of the vote in Pinellas, but as a political newcomer who entered the race this summer, he did not have nearly the same name recognition or connections in St. Petersburg that Reed had built as a legislator in Tampa.

Narain said he didn't think his vying against Reed for Hillsborough votes was any different than Ribeiro pulling votes from Rouson in Pinellas.

"No one was surprised to see Rep. Reed get the votes she received," Narain said. "This has never been about me. It's always been about representing the community.

"For that reason, I have no regrets."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.