The News Service of Florida:
HOLLYWOOD, Fla., June 15, 2013.......On a day when the Florida Democratic Party gathered to showcase its united drive to unseat Gov. Rick Scott, House Democrats held a caucus meeting that instead highlighted the concerns some members have with the leadership style of Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.
Rouson, who was chosen to lead House Democrats after the 2014 elections following a contentious contest with Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, is currently trying to increase the party's size in the House. But his style of doing so came under withering criticism Saturday from two members who said they were unhappy with Rouson.
It's not clear if the discontent goes beyond those two members, or how far it does go.
Rep. Mike Clelland, D-Lake Mary, questioned whether Rouson had managed to gain the full support of the Florida Education Association and the Florida Justice Association, two key constituencies in the party's organizing and fundraising efforts, as well as some other party leaders.
"Everything that I have heard from reliable sources is that you've alienated all of those folks," Clelland said. "And I want a leader in this caucus who's going to be a unifier, not a divider."
Rouson countered that he had "done everything than I humanly could to meet with" Jeff Wright, the FEA's head lobbyist, and allay that organization's concerns. Rouson also said he had spoken to some of the trial lawyers who form FJA.
He also threw an elbow at Clelland, initially responding to Clelland's question with a long pause.
"With all due respect, Representative, I'm not so sure that this is the appropriate forum and setting to answer the specifics of your question, nor will I cast aspersions on you for talking to Republicans," Rouson said.
"Who's talking to Republicans?" Clelland demanded.
Rep. Ricardo Rangel confronted Rouson over the role of consultant Barry Edwards, who has also worked with Republicans, in any efforts to win seats in the House. Rangel said that, before the House leadership election, Rouson had promised "that [Edwards] wouldn't be involved in anything, he would not step foot in Tallahassee."
And Rangel said Rouson had spoken with reporters about allegations that Rangel doesn't live in his district.
Rouson countered that Edwards has long been a part of his fundraising committee, and that members who asked for Edwards' help in their campaigns would have to answer for themselves.
"You also asked me to put you on the House Victory payroll," Rouson shot back.
Rangel would not comment after the meeting, but later said through a spokesman that he had sought a non-paying position from House Victory, the Democratic House campaign effort.
Rouson and current House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, tried more than once to get members to avoid airing disagreements in the open caucus meeting, but that brought more protests.
"We cannot be held hostage in this caucus by the press being present," Clelland said.
Other members also pleaded for unity.
"We're on the right direction," said Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton. "The team is where it should be. Now, let's get together and let's figure out how we're going to get the team stronger."
After the meeting, Thurston tried to downplay any appearance of a rift in the caucus, saying that Democrats were simply experiencing the growing pains as they increase their numbers in the House. And he said Rouson could win over any members who have concerns.
"I think that as he picks up seats and does his fundraising, you'll see people understand that he's doing what he has to do," Thurston said. "As I say, the job of keeping us together, that's my job and I'm going to make sure we do that."
House Democrats also discussed potential changes for their rules on caucus positions during the legislative session and the expulsion of members. Rep. Jim Waldman, a Coconut Creek Democrat spearheading the changes, dismissed reports from one media organization that the rules were aimed at cracking down on members who don't hew to the party line.
Instead, the rules would raise the bar for expelling members from the caucus to a two-thirds majority; currently, only a majority vote in necessary. However, the new rules would specifically state that voting against a caucus position could be grounds for expulsion. Some members did indicate that the draft of the rules presented at the meeting had changed from the first version, but didn't say how.
"It's the complete opposite of what you've been reading about in the press," Waldman said.
"We've actually made it much more difficult to penalize anybody who doesn’t follow the caucus position."
A vote on whether to go ahead with the changes is expected in September.