Who? Florida House Rep. Darryl Rouson
Sphere of influence: Local and state politics; represents parts of Sarasota, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties in State House district 55; handpicked by Gov. Charlie Crist for Tax and Budget Reform Commission; former president of the St. Petersburg NAACP chapter from 2000-2005; strong ties to local developers, lawyers and political leaders.
How he makes a difference: For nearly 20 years, Rouson, a lawyer, has crusaded for diversity, economic empowerment and substance abuse. His outspoken confrontational style has been lauded and derided in St. Petersburg politics. As NAACP president, Rouson successfully pushed the St. Petersburg Times to put an African-American on its board of directors. In 2006, the former addict led the crusade against retail outlets that sold glass pipes in Pinellas County, culminating in the toughest law in the state against such shops. Rouson was also instrumental in bringing a new Sweetbay store to Midtown. He is running again for the State House 55 seat, first in the August Democratic primary against Charles McKenzie, and if he wins, again in the November general election.
Creative Loafing: Has talking about your past addictions helped or hurt you?
Rouson: It certainly has hurt me among certain very conservative crowds and amongst some people who are not so forgiving of one who has made mistakes of judgment. But more often it has helped me, because it has allowed people to feel me and see I have not lost touch with the least of those in society. I have been homeless and therefore identify with the homeless; in fact, I filed the suit for the tent city slashings and I'm representing them and it's costing me out of my pocket — time and money and talent. But it's for a cause and I was homeless so I identify. I was a drug addict so certainly I have a community of recovering people and a community of families of recovering people who certainly understand the struggle of what one has to go through in order to overcome, but then maintain, a sober lifestyle. I like to tell people through my struggles, through my addictions, I have a better sense of the value of life, the value of family and the seriousness of those things.
When you have faced the dope man and had guns placed to your head and slept in places with no electricity or running water, what are you afraid of living for? Therefore, it has emboldened me to a large extent to challenge institutions, to challenge individuals, and to do so fearlessly and courageously, particularly if it's the right cause.
Do you have a wild and crazy drug story?
Not just one. [Laughs]. But I'll tell you one. I'll never forget in 1987, when I was driving from Mobile, Alabama to New Orleans, Louisiana, my family was in New Orleans and I was going to go visit them. I had been in a fight with my first wife in Mobile, and I had bought some crack before I left Mobile. I was getting high as I was driving to New Orleans. When I got to the Lake Pontchartrain Bridge, which is the 24-mile stretch of bridge over swampland, it was around 10 or 11 p.m. Very late. Full moon. I was hitting the crack pipe, driving with my knee on the steering wheel, and I was so despondent and depressed about life, that I prayed that the next hit my heart would stop or God would take the wheel and force my car to go over the side. And when it didn't happen the first stretch, going all the way over, I U-turned and came all the way back. It didn't happen the second stretch, so I U-turned and went all the way back. And this time I made it to New Orleans. I'm so grateful God kept me alive that night. That was a time when I was extremely despondent, and it would not have mattered to me had I died.
It has definitely influenced some of your causes. But why go after these retail stores that sell pipes and not the larger economic problems that influence drug use?
My focus is on a number of things; it's not on one thing. That happens to be one of my passions. Another passion is economic development, creating beautiful shopping centers. Another passion of mine is wealth distribution, creating diversity at the highest levels of corporate America so that people get wealth and jobs to feed their families and create change in the community. I have several passions.
But what I detest is an owner who profits of the illness of people. Addiction is an illness. And it's bullshit for you to sit here and tell me these things are only tobacco accessories used by hippies to smoke tobacco. A 10-year-old kid can tell you what is smoked in it. And the police know what is smoked in it when they make arrests. And when is the last time you walked into a middle-class home or establishment, or even an elderly one or a younger one, and there on a table are these various pipes. Hookahs? Maybe. But not these glass bowls, these water pipes. When have you seen one of these at Starbucks, with one on the table, smoking tobacco out of it? So it's crap. You know it's crap. I know it's crap.