Heading into Wednesday night’s Florida House Democratic Caucus meeting to decide its next leader, there was consensus on one thing.
“All the members want this behind us,” said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.
“This” was a protracted battle for leadership of House Democrats in 2014-2016 that had dragged on since last year. On Monday, Rouson was deposed as incoming House Minority Leader by a vote of 24-17 after he angered party leaders by establishing a fundraising committee only he controlled without telling them.
But whether an overwhelming consensus on a new leader is reached among 44 House Democrats could depend on Rouson and those 16 members who supported him on Monday.
Rouson won’t be running this time.
Instead, it will be Rep. Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach and Alan Williams of Tallahassee.
Both are currently in leadership. Williams is leader of the House black caucus and Democratic Whip. Pafford is Democratic policy chair. Both got elected to the House in 2008. Both are likable and prominent speakers during House floor debates.
Unlike the race between Mia Jones and Rouson, which Rouson won in February by a 23-21 margin, Pafford and Williams are actually friends, or at least, friendlier.
“Mark is one of my dearest friends in this process and someone I believe is a very good Democrat,” Williams said after announcing that he would challenge Pafford, who is considered a favorite.
“It’s a slam dunk,” said Rep. Joe Gibbons of Hallandale Beach.
Gibbons is on the Democratic leadership team, which seems to be siding with Pafford. Minority Leader Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale, and Rep. Jones of Jacksonville, who was rumored to be running again herself, have both endorsed Pafford.
“What we need to do is come together and have unity in the caucus, I think Mark Pafford is the man who can make that happen,” Thurston said Wednesday afternoon. “Williams would do a good job, but Pafford is the man to make that happen.”
Williams, 38, surprised some by filing to run. He had been considering a run for Tallahassee city commission. But on Tuesday afternoon, he decided to challenge Pafford for the leader position.
“I kind of wish Williams hadn’t decided to run so we could have rallied around Pafford,” Gibbons said. “But unlike last time, I don’t think tonight’s meeting will devolve. It will be collegial.”
But don’t bet that Pafford, 47, has it locked up with leadership behind him. So did Jones. And his support among some members in leadership could be more of reflection of their attitude about his legislative style. Williams, like Rouson, is known within the caucus for often freelancing deals with House Republicans, sometimes to the chagrin of Democratic leaders. Pafford more often toed the party line on votes.
The choice between Pafford and William could expose the same tension within the caucus that was evident in February’s Rouson-Jones contest. Pafford, like Jones, is considered by some more conservative Democrats to be out-of-touch with pro-business moderate Republicans and Independents that could expand the party’s base in Florida.
The ultra pro-business Florida Chamber of Commerce, for instance, gave Williams a 73 percent approval rating, the second highest in the House for Democrats. Pafford got a 36 percent rating, the second lowest in the House for Democrats. (Rouson’s 60 percent, put him at 20th highest, in the middle of the 44 in the caucus).
Yet Pafford says he’s not anti-business. And to be fair, when asked last year by The Palm Beach Post to identify any anti-business legislation that Pafford supported, even his opponent, Tami Donnally couldn’t.
"I can't think of any off the top of my head," Donnally said.
Whether it’s perception or reality doesn’t matter. The pro-business debate comes up repeatedly when House members discuss the Pafford-Williams race. For Democrats fighting for survival in competitive districts, how the party is perceived among business groups -- a source of campaign cash -- matters.
Lobbyist Chris Moya said business interests would be less likely to contribute to House Democrats with new leaders in place.
"Darryl had an open door," Moya said. "He wanted to hear everything. I'm not sure we are going to get that with the present candidates."
For his part, Rouson said he’s staying out of it -- at least until the meeting.
A statement Rouson released on Tuesday stopped well short of an endorsement of Pafford.
“I am asking those that supported me to meet personally with Rep. Mark Pafford and make your concerns known,” he said.
On Wednesday, Rouson said he’s still considering who he’ll support. He said he’ll be meeting with those members “who laid it on the line for me” and with Williams.
“I’m going to talk to Alan and see what his priorities are,” Rouson said.
Rouson said it wasn’t safe to assume that leadership’s support of Pafford meant members would coalesce around him.
“Leadership doesn’t decide this, members do,” Rouson said.
He said he’ll make up his mind during the caucus meeting.“I pray for a short meeting,” Rouson said. “The drama has gone on too long. It’s time to turn to the matters of state.”