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Rouson feud with Democrats draws blood

A feud between Florida Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant and incoming House Minority Leader Darryl Rouson spilled out into the open Friday with the confirmation that Tant has fired two high ranking members of the party’s political staff.

Jeff Ryan, who served as the finance director for the Florida House Democrats, and Chris Mitchell, who served as the political director for the Florida House Democrats, were fired Thursday, said Florida Democratic Party spokesman Joshua Karp.

The shakeup came after Tant discovered this week that Rouson, who is set to become minority leader in 2014, had created a special fundraising committee last month that only he could control. In their positions overseeing the financing and strategy of House races, Ryan and Mitchell worked with Rouson in creating the committee without informing Tant.

“This is an overreaction by the party and retaliatory in nature,” said Mitchell, who at 29 had served for the past seven months with the party after a two-year stint as the chair of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party. “At the end of the day, I hope Leader Rouson and Leader (Perry) Thurston can get together and come to an agreement.”

If anything, the rift between Rouson, of St. Petersburg, and other party leaders like Tant and Thurston, has only become more apparent the past two days. But there was plenty of evidence before that it was a bitter one. Tant defeated Hillsborough County Democratic state committeeman Alan Clendenin, 587-507, in late January after a nasty two-month campaign. Rouson and Mitchell openly supported Clendenin.

The following month, Rouson narrowly won his bid to become House minority leader, besting Mia Jones, of Jacksonville, 23-21, after they had been deadlocked 22-22. Rouson, who was once a Republican, has fended off criticism, much of it from House Democratic leadership, ever since.

On Thursday, Tant wrote a letter to all House Democratic members Thursday alerting them to Rouson’s committee, while pointing out that the Florida Democratic Party prefers steering funds through other existing committees.

Rouson’s committee is a curious one.  It’s 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, but Republicans had enough votes to override the veto. Rouson voted against creating the committees and in support of Crist’s veto. In an interview on Thursday, he would not say why he changed his mind and created the first APC since 2011’s veto override.

Thurston said Thursday he was disappointed that Rouson had formed an APC without telling him. But he said Rouson agreed in a Thursday meeting over the telephone with House leaders to close the committee down. But Rouson said Thursday night that he was only considering closing it down. As of noon Friday, the status of the committee was still active.

Rouson fired back, asking why Tant sent a letter to all House members to address concerns about his committee. Karp said the letter was intended to inform house members that Rouson “took a significant step in changing party structures, and we felt it was important to let them know of that fact.”

Rouson also questioned the firing of Ryan, a long-time staffer who deserved better, he said.

“He has been working extremely hard,” Rouson said.

Karp said he couldn’t comment on internal personnel matters. Ryan declined to speak to a reporter.

The purge comes as Democrats try to pick up a seat in House District 36 in western Pasco County in an Oct. 15 special election. With three Republicans mired in a Sept. 17 primary, the Democrats had appeared unified behind one candidate, Amanda Murphy. But the internal strife behind the scenes raises even more questions that Democrats will be able to capitalize on the divisions with Pasco Republicans and gain a seat in a chamber where they are outnumbered 75-44.

Karp said the terminations won’t impact the race.

“We’re going to maintain our aggressive effort there,” Karp said. “We’re going to fund that effort. That is a race we believe will be won by Amanda Murphy.”

But Clendenin, who said he was extremely disappointed about the purge, said it was “foolish” to think it wouldn’t hurt Democratic efforts to win more seats in the House, especially this year’s only race.

“This type of distraction is not healthy for our longer term agenda,” said Clendenin, the party’s first vice chair. “It’s time for cooler heads to prevail.”