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Democrats miffed as maverick Rouson goes it alone

UPDATE: (6 p.m.): Minority Leader Perry Thurston called after the initial post and announced that House Democratic leaders, including Rouson, agreed to disband the committee this afternoon. Those in agreement were himself, Rouson, Jones, James Waldman of Coconut Creek, Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach, Janet Cruz of Tampa, and Joe Gibbons of Hallandale Beach, Thurston said.  "They all agreed to shut it down," Thurston said. "Fundraising for House Victory will go through the Florida Democratic Party and through no other entity." Asked if Rouson agreed to this, Thurston said "I want him to tell you." Rouson wouldn't return phone calls. The committee was still listed as active, however. "We're thinking it's going to be shut down as we speak," Thurston said minutes after 5:30 p.m. "We love our donors. We want to make sure they're not getting any mixed signals about who they need to contribute money to." Thurston said he wasn't worried about relations between party leaders and Rouson. "Things will get smoothed over," he said. 

UPDATE (9:45 p.m.): Rouson called back, but wouldn't confirm that he will shut down the committee. Asked if he agreed with Thurston's recollection that he agreed to shut down the leadership fund, Rouson would only say "I respect leadership and I am considering what was suggested." He defended his decision to open a leadership fund, which he had once opposed, as being pragmatic. "My role is singular and focused on raising money, protecting returning members and increasing our numbers by getting new members elected," Rouson said. "I think I'm doing my job." He questioned how Tant handled the matter. "I never wanted to play this out in the press," he said. "Having said that, there was a way (the party) could have talked about this and communicated without a letter going to 44 members. If the letter is addressed to (Thurston), why did she send it to all the members?" 

Just how dysfunctional is it within the Florida Democratic Party?

Consider what incoming House Minority Leader, Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, just did.

Unbeknownst to other party leaders, he filed papers at the Florida Department of State last month opening up the “Florida House Democratic Caucus Affiliated Party Committee” that made himself the sole designated person in control of the fund, which will raise money for House Democratic candidates.

Since Rouson’s set to take over the Minority Leader duties from Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, in 2014, that sounds all fine and good. After all, the Minority Leader is indeed responsible for recruiting candidates and raising money for the 2014 and 2016 races.

The only problem is that Rouson created what’s called an “Affiliated Party Committee”, which is also known as a “leadership fund.” For many years in Tallahassee, APCs were a discredited and illegal way to raise money because of long-ago “pay-for-play” abuses by Democrats. They were prone to such abuse because they were controlled directly by legislative leaders and spent solely at the discretion of those leaders, a structure that caused many to label them “slush funds.”


Yet during the 2010 session, the leadership funds were brought back to life and passed by state lawmakers in HB 1207 with strong Republican support and Democratic opposition. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed the bill, saying that they were a vestige of Florida’s political past that should be forgotten. He referred to the recent scandals on spending with the Republican Party of Florida.

“In this climate, I’m just concerned about sort of putting a stamp of approval if you will on those kinds of funds,” Crist said at the time. “I don’t think it’s the right thing to do nor the right time to do it.”

Republicans had enough votes, however, to override the veto. Along with most other Democrats, guess who voted against the leadership funds in 2010, and then against the veto override in 2011?

Darryl Rouson himself.

So what changed? Why did Rouson file paperwork on Aug. 13 making him the one who will “supervise and control all activities” of the committee, giving him powers to “hire staff, including independent consultants”? Along with the treasurer, Elise Minkoff, Rouson will be responsible for controlling the funds. While the bylaws of the committee prohibit Rouson from getting paid, he can authorize Mintkoff to pay “reasonable and necessary employee salary and benefits, consultant, accounting, legal or administrative fees and other expenses related to the operation and purposes of the Committee.”

When asked about Rouson’s committee, Joshua Karp, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party, called it “unexpected.”

“We discovered it Monday,” Karp said.

Calling it “awkward” is an understatement. Democrats loudly denounced the creation of the committees in 2010 and 2011 to no avail. But the controversy lingered long enough that even Republicans have yet to create an APC. Rouson wins the prize for forming the first one.

The discovery of Rouson’s committee on Thursday, which was first reported by the Florida Times-Union, prompted a letter from the chair of the Florida Democratic Party, Allison Tant, to all Democratic House members and Thurston.

“The (party) believes that continuing the current structure of a coordinated (party) and House Democratic operation, similar to the Senate Democratic Caucus, is the best strategic approach heading into 2014. It ensures that resources are maximized and Party resources can be used to help House candidates during this cycle.”

Tant was referring to the 2012 election cycle, when Democrats picked up five seats in the House. They did so, Karp said, by coordinating closely between the House and the Florida Democratic Party.

“We had historic gains using that model and hope that it continues in the future,” Karp said.

The newly formed leadership fund only shines another spotlight on the discord within the party that has characterized Rouson’s rise to leadership. In February, he narrowly defeated Rep. Mia Jones of Jacksonville, 23-21 after the two had deadlocked in a 22-22 tie vote.

Since then, Rouson, a former Republican, has had his leadership questioned by other Democrats and his finances dredged up following his sudden departure from Morgan & Morgan. Rouson says he’s facing no economic hardship.

When contacted about his latest flap with the Florida Democratic Party this afternoon, Rouson said he was with a constituent and would call back. We’re still waiting.

Other party leaders, such as Jones and Thurston, couldn't be reached either. As of 5 p.m., the status of Rouson's committee was still listed as "active."