Steve Bousquet reported in the Tampa Bay Times that we will finally have a House Leadership election on February 20th, more than a month after Darryl Rouson (D-St Petersburg) tried to call for a vote. While both Mia Jones (D-Jacksonville) and Rouson claim to have the commitments of be elected leader designee, our sources indicate that Rouson has signed pledges from at least half the caucus and with verbal commitments (which by definition are soft) he has the support of over 2/3 of the 44 member caucus. Jones has the tacit support of current leader Perry Thurston (D-Plantation) and of several party staffers and consultants. It is worth noting once again that for a party that prides itself on being diverse, the Democrats have not had a female House leader in well over a decade.
Rouson is a former Republican whose views on some social issues have “evolved” with time and who has received lots of money from school “choice” advocates. Jones is clearly more liberal, but unlike Rouson who raised money for numerous Democrats running for State House in 2012, even those not targeted by House Victory, Jones own record in helping other Democrats is spotty at best. During the 2012 cycle Rosuon even personally contributed to the recruitment of many Democratic candidates, while Jones may have played a role in the underwhelming Democratic performance. This was a cycle where on a newly drawn map, the party captured only 35% of House seats while President Obama carried the state with 50% of the vote and Senator Nelson was reelected with 55% of the vote.
Over a week ago we reported on an odd donation made from the FDP to Mia Jones campaign in the dying days of what proved to be an election of missed opportunities for House Democrats. Subsequent to this donation it has become known that many party affiliated staffers and consultants prefer Jones to Rouson. Democrats lost 13 House races by less than 5,000 votes and five House races by less than 2,000 votes, throughout the state. Most of these candidates were underfunded and while raising money is difficult in an environment where the RPOF and its leadership has created a culture of cronyism, entitlement and borderline corruption, what little money the FDP has should never be wasted in races that are not competitive on safe incumbents. Part of the arrogance and reckless cronyism promoted by the Florida GOP has to do with the fact that the Democratic Party has been so incompetent in how it has run its legislative campaigns through the years, the Republicans feel they can get away with almost anything.
From a policy perspective, Jones is a better fit for the Caucus. I also as a personal matter feel it is important not only to stress clear ideological differences from the Republicans, but to promote a female back into the top leadership position. But the bottom line is that the party continues to badly under-perform in legislative elections. While Democrats continue to self-congratulate themselves on a “historic” (Rod Smith’s words, not mine) cycle in legislative elections, the Republicans can basically do anything they want in the Legislature. The House is also now led by Will Weatherford who cuts a very different and less offensive figure than his immediate predecessors in the House Speakership and is more like his father-in-law, the very cautious and likeable former Speaker Alan Bense. This means the Republicans with a 76-44 majority will pass dangerous legislation AND look less irrational in doing so. This reality in addition to new comfort GOP House members will have with the redrawn districts they now represent, makes holding seats, let alone picking up new seats in 2014 potentially much more difficult than it was in 2012.
Perry Thurston, the current House Leader fits the caucus like a glove on policy matters but due to his day job couldn’t put in the work necessary to effectively run House Victory in 2012. That left party operatives and consultants in control and they as has become typical made a number of strategic blunders. This is in addition to the fact that many winnable seats were left uncontested or with weak, underfunded, below-the-radar type challengers. Rouson’s ideological bent worries me as a progressive, but we need to work doubly hard to be more competitive in legislative elections and Rouson appears poised to deliver a stronger, more consistent and disciplined campaign operation than Jones would provide.
Ultimately, Democrats must decide whether strong ideological priorities or aggressively contesting seats is most important. Fears are abound that Jones will not put the work in to effectively organize the caucus while others point to Rouson’s history and voting record as drawbacks. Either way, House Democrats MUST get this choice right or run the risk of another 2002 or 2010 like cycle where marginal seats were lost and pick up opportunities were out the window.