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  1. Florida Politics

State Senate race divides Hillsborough, Pinellas

Published Jun. 22, 2016

A Hillsborough versus Pinellas battle is brewing in the primary for a state Senate seat representing minority neighborhoods in both counties, with prominent Democrats on either side of the bay lining up with their hometown candidates.

In Pinellas, state Rep. Darryl Rouson has endorsements from every elected Democrat in the county. He's benefitting from discontent in St. Petersburg's minority community, long overwhelmed by the larger Hillsborough side of the district, that they've been neglected by Tampa-based senators.

"We've been the stepchild," said Gershom Faulkner, a former legislative aide and city council candidate from St. Petersburg. "Unfortunately, there's still that divide of the bridge amongst the African-American community."

State Rep. Ed Narain and former Rep. Betty Reed, two prominent black political figures from Tampa, are opposing Rouson. Tampa Democrats worry they'll split the Tampa vote, helping Rouson.

"I don't need to carry Hillsborough overwhelmingly," Rouson said this week. "Like the military says, "I just need the few, the proud, the brave.' "

Narain, Rouson and Reed all deny that geography is an issue in the race, and all insist they're crossing the bay to campaign.

But Reed acknowledged, "They have some strong people over there, and they are doing what they should do to get their voices heard. That means we really have to work in Tampa."

A last-minute entry to the race, St. Petersburg trial lawyer Augie Ribeiro, could make things even more complicated. Ribeiro couldn't be reached Wednesday, but is said by party insiders -- including current District 19 Sen. Arthenia Joyner -- to be considering running.

The district covers East Tampa and much of South Shore, plus parts of Gulfport and St. Petersburg south of 22nd Avenue North. Joyner, the outgoing Senate Democratic Leader, is leaving the seat because of term limits.

There are ideological and personal strains in the primary battle as well as geographic ones.

Many Democrats consider Narain a rising star. A former University of South Florida student body president, he was elected chairman of the legislative black caucus in 2015, his freshman year in the Legislature.

The veteran Rouson, on the other hand, is a former Republican criticized by some for taking conservative stances at odds with the party, and cozying up to the Republican majority to increase his ability to bring home bacon for his district.

"We don't need people playing games with Republicans and abandoning our Democratic principles," Narain told a crowd at his campaign kickoff in Tampa this week.

In response, Rouson says his style of politicking has produced results Narain can't match.

In 2009, he said, he was the only Democrat in the House to vote in favor of the GOP-sponsored budget. That helped him get included in the budget a $1 million pilot project creating 400 jobs for at-risk youth, most of them in Hillsborough, he said.

Rouson also led a group of seven House Democrats who voted for the budget in 2015, when the party was seeking a unified show of opposition to force expansion of the Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, long a top Democratic priority.

Narain called that a betrayal. He also criticizes Rouson for voting for a harsh anti-abortion rights bill this year. Rouson said he accidentally hit the wrong voting button on his desk.

"Pardon me for being human and making a mistake in a chaotic floor session," he said. Rouson acknowledged, however, that he'd made the same mistake on previous abortion bills.

Narain won his House seat in 2014 with the help of an endorsement by Reed, who left it because of term limits. Not long after the election in which he replaced her, Narain endorsed her for the Senate seat.

But then, he said, "People from the community started calling me and asking me to run. They were concerned she was not going to be able to win the seat" because of her slow fundraising and what Narain suggested was a less than vigorous campaign.

Reed is still far behind financially, with $25,391 to Rouson's $71,828 and Narain's $136,239. She attributed that to "Tallahassee money" going to them.

Three black Tampa senators have held the seat, drawn to encourage election of a minority candidate -- Joyner, James Hargrett and Les Miller.

"We tried to represent Pinellas even though we lived here, but they've felt they got the short end of the stick," Miller said.

Pinellas Democratic Party official Ramsay McLauchlan said Democrats there like Joyner, "but felt she was a Hillsborough senator. There are folks concerned that whoever wins the seat this year doesn't share that view."

This year's redistricting enlarged the Pinellas share, giving hope to candidates there.

It's still 75 percent Hillsborough by population, but its Pinellas residents are more likely to register and vote. In the 2012 Democratic primary, said political consultant Matt Isbell, about 55 percent of the voters in the areas that now make up the district were from Hillsborough and 45 percent from Pinellas.

"One of the Hillsborough people has to break out and be dominant in their home county, or make inroads in Pinellas," he said.

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