Rouson stripped of state minority party leader post

September 23, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE -- House Democrats voted 24-17 to oust state Rep. Darryl Rouson as incoming House Minority Leader after a three-hour Monday night meeting.

“I’m disappointed but undaunted,” Rouson said after the meeting, saying he supported the party’s decision.

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

At least one candidate to replace Rouson, state Rep. Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach, confirmed he was going to run.

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

But Rouson's supporters left the meeting frustrated by the outcome. As he left, Rouson said he was undecided if he was going to make another run at the post. He said he may file to run again.

Rouson, 59, had struggled to hold onto his post as designated Democratic House leader, where he would oversee the 2014 House Democratic candidates before taking over after next year’s election.

In February, he defeated state Rep. Mia Jones of Jacksonville, 23-21, after a second round of balloting when Democrats deadlocked on a 22-22 vote. Although he beat Jones, Rouson had said before that he had a 29-15 lead over her.

“I’m a little disappointed that seven Democrats may have done something differently, secretly,” he said after the initial vote.

That mistrust would prove mutual and haunted Rouson’s brief reign as leader. A trial lawyer with a compelling life story as a recovered crack addict, Rouson is a former Republican who was close to two former governors: Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist. One of his chief selling points to Democrats was that he had ties to Crist, the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor. Yet Rouson was continually vexed by questions about his loyalties.

During a June caucus meeting, he fended off criticism aimed at his consultant, Barry Edwards, who has worked with Republicans, and a charge that he had not done more to work with key Democratic constituencies like the Florida Education Association.

Rouson’s coalition of younger lawmakers that he campaigned for in 2012 and moderate pro-business Democrats withstood the challenges. But his hold on power slipped away after party leaders discovered he had created a fundraising committee that only he could control -- without telling them.

Party Chair Allison Tant fired two staffers, and Thurston called a meeting to discuss Rouson’s future. Heading into Monday’s meeting, Democrats said they were fed up with internal squabbling.

But hopes that Rouson would step aside were dashed when he said he would try to hang on as leader.

Although he did say that, in hindsight, he should have provided “more clarity” and told others about the committee he was forming, Rouson showed no signs of backing down and blamed party leaders for the situation. He said he was aggressively raising money via the committee because he wasn’t confident in Tant’s leadership.

“Why would you put your money in a failing bank?” Rouson said.

Even before Rouson was forced out, replacements for him had been discussed, including Janet Cruz of Tampa, Jones of Jacksonville, Pafford of West Palm Beach and Alan Williams of Tallahassee.

Reporters were not allowed in the three-hour meeting, but House Democratic spokesman Mark Hollis provided updates. After an introduction by Thurston, Rouson spoke for 20 minutes and then answered questions for another 25 minutes from about seven or eight members. After eating Papa John’s pizza, they reconvened and allowed 2 ½ minutes for each member to speak.

Of the 44-member Democratic caucus, three were absent: Betty Reed of Tampa, Kionne McGhee of Miami and Kevin Rader of Delray Beach, a key Rouson supporter who had a family emergency.

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

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