Party Staffers Fired Amid Democratic Turmoil
Around the State
Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant fired two top staffers linked to a campaign committee created by incoming House Minority Leader Darryl Rouson, escalating an intra-party fight over Rouson's fundraising efforts and leaving an already fractured House caucus in disarray.
Party officials confirmed Friday that Tant fired veteran House Victory finance director Jeff Ryan and House Democrats political director Chris Mitchell. Tant was angry that Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, had gone behind her back and created a political committee to raise money for House races.
"I think he should have stepped down a while ago and I think he should step down (now)," Rep. Mike Clelland, D-Lake Mary, said Friday. Clelland was among those who supported Rouson's opponent, Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, in a contentious leadership race earlier this year. Rouson defeated Jones by a single vote after a first election resulted in a tie.
On Thursday, Tant sent a letter to House Democrats advising them of the committee and telling them they were basically on their own as far as fundraising was concerned.
Tant wrote that the traditional method of a "coordinated FDP and House Democratic operation … ensures that resources are maximized and Party resources can be used to help House candidates during this cycle."
Democrats had rejected what are known as "Affiliated Party Committees" several years ago, and no leaders in either party had created one until last month, when Rouson filed paperwork for the "Florida House Democratic Caucus Affiliated Party Committee."
Privately, party staff said Ryan and Mitchell were fired because the party did not want to cover the expenses for Rouson's operations.
Rouson, who backed Alan Clendenin against Tant in the race for state party chairman, emailed House caucus members late Thursday night blasting Tant. He said he created the committee after consulting with lawyers and deciding the House Democrats needed more control of how contributions were managed.
"I regret impetuous actions by FDP, hasty firing of hard-working staff with a purpose to make public an internal matter," Rouson wrote. "This overreaction today by FDP is an example of why we must continue in this direction for the long-term viability of our electoral success as a caucus. In a private meeting with Allison Tant yesterday she could have discussed this matter but she chose a public forum to air an internal matter."
On Friday, Rouson said he intends to shut down the committee as he promised on a Thursday conference call with current House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, and other caucus members.
"I never wanted to play this out in the media or the press. It doesn't benefit or behoove the party or the process," Rouson said. "This is important to the House Democrats."
Rouson said he was "very disappointed" that Ryan and Mitchell were fired.
"Jeff was busting his behind. For four months we have been killing it in terms of fundraising and fundraising meetings. I think it was an overreaction to something that could have been handled internally," he said.
The dust-up comes as Democrats lag in fundraising behind the GOP and on the heels of an embarrassing episode over a candidate for chief financial officer. Allie Braswell, touted by Tant, dropped out of the CFO race a few days after announcing his candidacy following reports that he had filed for bankruptcy three times.
Thurston and other Democrats scrambled Friday to assuage contributors' potential concerns over where their contributions would wind up.
"Our fundraising is going to be done through the House Victory at the Democratic Party. There should be no confusion. We all voted against these accounts and we're not in support of using the accounts. And that's why we were surprised and disappointed when we heard that one had been opened up," Thurston said.
Rouson was one of the Democrats who voted against the re-creation of the committees -- known as leadership funds -- when the committees were approved by the Legislature in 2010. Critics said it was too easy for legislators, who had direct control of the campaign accounts, to use them as slush funds, and then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed the bill. The GOP-dominated Legislature overrode his veto in 2011.
Rouson's failure to inform his fellow Democrats, who depend in a large part on his fundraising prowess, deepened divisions within the caucus.
"Obviously there's been a very big blip on the radar," Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said about the firings and Rouson's future. "The chatter unfortunately has been witnessed publicly, notably the one in Fort Lauderdale. There's been continued pushback. I don't know if this will lead to a recall type of situation. Really at this point everything is up to Darryl."
At a June caucus meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Clelland accused Rouson of alienating the state's teachers' union, the Florida Education Association, and the trial lawyers' organization, the Florida Justice Association -- cornerstones of the party's base. He reiterated that criticism Friday.
"I don't think he's good for our caucus," Clelland said.
Other Democrats were more circumspect. Rep. Alan Williams, a Tallahassee Democrat who briefly ran for leader-designate before backing Jones, said caucus members need "clarity" on the issue.
"There are a lot more questions than answers at this time," Williams said.
Democrats don't currently have a caucus meeting scheduled for the first week of legislative committee work, which begins Sept. 23. And it's not clear that the caucus' current rules contemplate a situation where the leader-designate would be removed from office.
Rouson would still have to win a formal vote after the 2014 elections to take over as Democratic leader, but that vote is generally ceremonial and uncontested.
Thurston said he's reaching out to members to unify the caucus while advising them to stay out of the dispute between Tant and Rouson.
"Our message is this does not involve you. This does not involve us," Thurston said. "I'd say we've had enough of letters circulating and displayed. So I'm going to be talking to members directly. This is just a molehill."
Rouson can use the flap to prove his skills as a leader, Pafford said.
"Darryl has an opportunity to use this as a learning experience. If he takes the right steps to correct things, he may be able to maintain some confidence with supporters and win their confidence," Pafford said.