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.
If we can outlaw fireworks like cherry bombs and other such things in the state of Florida because it's dangerous, and their tools of death and destruction, certainly we can outlaw pipes —the charade is they are just a tobacco accessory. And the fact is, I don't want to stop at the headshops. I want the manufacturers who distribute to the headshops. ...
Across the country, organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League are losing members. What do these organizations need to do to remain relevant?
First of all, we have a great new president, Ben Jealous, who is 35 years old and a friend of my brother. But from what I remember, the NAACP for me had become irrelevant. It had become an elitist organization of older people who seemed to be content to just every now and again show up on something. They were drawing on their memories of the civil rights movement, of Bloody Sunday, of Selma, of the water hoses and the dogs and those kinds of things. But those memories were foreign to some of the younger people growing up who didn't live through them, and therefore the organization to them was irrelevant. I went back to the basics. I looked at the mission statement. It said the NAACP is supposed to not keep the peace, but ensure the PESE — the political, the education, the social and the economic plight of minorities. And within that framework, to identify racism, and every time it rears its ugly head, knock it out.
I saw the branch here as one concentrating on education. Well, the president for 21 years, Garnelle Jenkins, was a teacher. She was an educator. Education was her passion. That's what [the NAACP] was really involved in around here. But there were three other things that were in the mission statement. So what I did was create a different emphasis. I said the younger group of people care about economics, they care about social and some of them even care about political. So, as the new branch president for the first time in 21 years, I redirected the focus away from education so much to include economic, social and political.
What is social? You can't get a company to come into Midtown because there are drugs and crime and they don't want to subject their employees to it. So we have to deal with that social discrimination. And how do we deal with it? Clean up the drugs and crime and then companies will want to come. Political was we can't get certain people elected; we don't have representation on certain political bodies. Change it. Economics is holding significant jobs and positions in corporate America as well as getting certain dollars directed to African Americans and the black community. To me that is what we did. That was the secret of the St. Petersburg branch becoming a vocal and visible force.
Do you think Sweetbay has had a significant impact on economic development and quality of life in Midtown?
Without a doubt. You have folks who can shop there now rather than going way to 34th Street, or going way down to Ninth Street, or going to Coquina Key. People can now shop in the 'hood at a quality store like Sweetbay. It's created jobs. Over 100 jobs were created in that shopping center.
Most importantly, it's created hope. A vision that change can be done, and a hope that there can be a better future in a distressed neighborhood. It is now a seed and a catalyst for the other two corners. So I think it's made a significant impact.
You've received a lot of criticism for making money off that Sweetbay deal.
The only thing you saw that criticized that is the Uhurus' statement. That's the only thing that's on the Internet or on the blogs that accused me of that, and criticized me for that. You will not find anyone in America — and I will pay you $1,000 if you do — any other credible organization or person who made that statement, because the true powers know that is absolutely false and it was hype talk by [the Uhurus].
The fact of the matter is they wouldn't let us do it to the extent of profiting. Not Republic Bank. Not Bank of America. Not AmSouth. Not SouthTrust. Not even some of the majority developers that we sought assistance from. They forced us to go and do it as a nonprofit. Which meant there was no stock. Which meant you couldn't benefit financially. We had to give away a certain amount of money. Did we make some money on it? Yeah, we made a little money. Did we make what other developers make when they do private venture development? Hell, no.
And the struggle was a struggle. Nobody would invest with us. The banks blew smoke up our butts. A national chain that was first going to come in danced with us for 18 months and dropped out at the last minute. It was not a project we could profit from.
But there are people outside the Uhurus that say you have used high-profile stunts to funnel business to things like your law firm. How do you respond?
And the fact of the matter is, at the end of the day I have to eat, too, like everybody else. I certainly have not become enriched by my public service. In fact, I lost a ton of money being president of the NAACP for five years. I could no longer afford financially to be president of the NAACP. Half the white folks wouldn't hire me because they said I was racist, radical and exclusionary and not a good "fit" for their business clientele. Half the black folks wouldn't hire me because they said I was the white man's bootlicker, an Uncle Tom and a sellout Judas for wanting to cooperate and collaborate as I confronted. If I did my job, and I think I did, I pissed off half the population by getting up and doing my job — half the white folks, half the black folks.
It was a thankless job for which my enrichment came through having an organization that was vibrant and growing and a force in the community. And it meant something when people would say, "Well, you better be careful. Rouson might show up." In fact, there was a joke going around. A wealthy white guy in St. Pete said, "You know Rouson, you know what they're saying about you? You know you're having a bad day if you go to work and Rouson is sitting in the lobby waiting for you."
Where do you think the media is right now with diversity?
I think they're doing a good job. I've seen some balance that was not here during the mid to late '90s. During that period of time there was a lot of emphasis on violence and black crime and things like that. I'm seeing some good stories that talk about African-Americans in a positive light. I'm seeing a better balance than I have.
How did your first few weeks as a state representative go?
It was a very humbling process. It was a very challenging process. It was very exciting to realize I had gone from the crack house to the floor of the House for the state of Florida. When I raised my hand and accepted the oath, I got goosebumps. It was a tough time for me, because I have never held public office. To realize that there were 2,500 bills that were filed, about 315 that actually got passed and maybe 80 percent of the 315 were done in the last two weeks — the time I was there. So I was having to read staff analysis, summaries of bills, watch others who I believed were aligned philosophically with me to see how they were voting, including those in my area. Knowing that any vote I made could be the vote someone hangs around my neck as the noose, but wanting to be there and do a good job because that's what the people elected me for. It's prepared me. And I'm very excited now about the potential of winning and serving the full two-year term. There are few greater honors to be a member of the House of Representative and realize your vote can change statewide issues.
What was the best bill that came out of last session?
I don't know what the best bill was.
What about the most ridiculous?
The Truck Nutz bill. Also, the debate on Darwinism and creationism. To me those were not things that should be debated. Although I learned a phrase: someone said to me that the house floor is the place for free and open political and philosophical debate on issues that affect the citizenry of the state of Florida. Maybe that is the place.
The most poignant bill, the one I saw evoke emotion and tears, was the very last one that dealt with autism and children. The behind-the-scenes maneuvering and negotiating that was taking place [while] the clock was winding down. Ten minutes, five minutes left in session. And then the speaker of the House talking about the bill and urging its passage as the last thing that they do, and looking at Rep. Loranne Ausley just cry. That was very poignant.
What initiatives can your constituents expect from you?
Housing is very important to me — affordable housing, workforce housing. As a member of the Tax and Budget Reform Commission, I put forth a proposal that I wanted to become a constitutional amendment to be put on the ballot but it came as a statutory recommendation ... I want to create more affordable housing. I want to free the funds and scrap the cap of the Sadowski Fund. Stop the charade and free up the money so police, teachers, firemen, nurses can afford to live where they work.
Secondly, I want to deal with some safety issues in neighborhoods by bringing in economic development and bringing in jobs to areas.
Also, I'm concerned about transportation. We need to cut congestion down in certain areas of our highways and byways. We need to look to commuter rail and light rail systems, and be prepared for the future when it comes to transportation.
Also, very important to me are property taxes. I was the first commissioner to jump on the proposal that dealt with the sales tax swap. I want to immediately reduce people's property taxes by getting rid of the required local effort that goes to fund schools, change the way we fund schools as a way of reducing property taxes, but still holding school budgets harmless. So I will work hard toward things that will continue to reduce our property taxes.
Insurance reform. There's no great love with insurance companies, it is a necessary component of a civilized society, but we have to find ways to bring down homeowners insurance rates and premiums. The energy crisis. All of these things are very personal and meaningful to me.
The people can expect should I be elected that I will be a viable and vocal force when it comes to these issues. I want to bring practical solutions to current problems. I want to address issues without bureaucracy and the morass of administrative complexity, but look straight to the heart of what needs to be done and try to get it done.
You're a fairly connected guy. But sometimes that can be a double-edged sword. Some critics of your campaign could say that means you won't see the needs of average citizens.
First of all, those who are not so connected are the ones who try to use my connectedness against me.
But the fact of the matter is, should someone get in this seat, they will have to be connected also in order to get something done. The numbers aren't there otherwise. It's a Republican senate. It's a Republican house. It's a Republican governor. Therefore, you must have relationships across the aisle; you must be post-partisan in some of your dealings in order to get some major things accomplished. I think I can do that without selling my soul. So I don't see it as a liability.
If you concentrate on the label of a man, you'll miss the heart of a man. I have been consistent and constant on the principles I have stood for and the things I have fought.
Did you switch parties for political expediency or a change in your values?
My values have remained constant and consistent for the last 20 years. The ones who are most harping about the political party change are those who feel the most threatened by it. And that is my opponent. No one in the Democratic Party is angry or criticizing the 50,000 change in registrations that's been occurring over the last several years. In fact, the Democrats are celebrating that, for the first time in 50 years, because of the influx of new registrations of Democrats, we now lead in party affiliation in this county. So, to me it's a little disingenuous to try and attack me only on that.
Also, political parties such as the Republican Party have always made a big whoop-tee-doo out of a Democrat switching to Republican. I think, to some extent, us Democrats need to do the same thing when someone switches from Republican to Democrat. But here to forward, we haven't done it like that. But we ought to find ways of welcoming people home. We are the "big tent."
You recently put up $10,000 of your own money for the 50-50-50 Challenge that is raising money for summer jobs for youth. Why is this important to you?
Nancy Reagan used to say, "Just say no to drugs." But we found out you can't just say no to drugs without saying yes to something else that fills the void. You just can't cut budgets, do away with summer youth employment that city was doing, reduce library hours, reduce community center and recreation hours and tell kids, "Sit on your thumbs and be good." You have to fill it with something else. So what I wanted to do is challenge the community to give these idle hands a workshop and a workplace as a way of keeping them away from the potential of violence and the potential of negative activity. Real simple. Encourage private individuals and motivate folks first by stepping up myself and doing something, to do what government can no longer afford to do, because of revenue shortfalls and budget cuts.
Any thoughts on the shooting of Javon Dawson?
Yeah, we need people to come forward. There were a couple hundred kids and folks out there that night and my understanding is as of a couple days ago no one had really stepped forward yet to really tell what they know. If the police officer was wrong he ought to absolutely be punished to the fullest extent of the law and in a very firm manner and in a very timely manner. If Javon Dawson had a gun and pointed it at the officer instead of vilifying and attacking Javon Dawson we ought to be finding out why he had a gun and why he brought it to a party and who knew he had it. But first, we need people to come forward and realize that it's not snitching to tell the truth about what you know.
Do you have a favorite superhero?
I wasn't a superhero guy like Superman. I liked the Fantastic Four, because it was teamwork. And each one had a different skill to the mix. Not one of them could do the job by themselves, but all four together could not be defeated. I've always liked that concept. I am not powerful by myself. I am powerful because of the following and because of the collaboration and the cooperation of colleagues and the team. Even when I was NAACP president, it wasn't me who was powerful; it was the membership that made me powerful. So I don't like Underdog. I don't like Superman. I don't even like Batman, because he was a solitary figure. But I always liked Fantastic Four.