State Sen. Darryl Rouson dropped five places on this year’s list but still landed in a respectable position at No. 15.
Rouson’s Senate district includes parts of south Pinellas County and east and south Hillsborough County, putting him in a unique, though not an entirely rare position to influence policy across county lines.
Rouson’s chairmanship of both the Pinellas and Hillsborough County Legislative Delegations this year no doubt played into his positioning on this year’s list. As chair of those groups, Rouson played an integral role in ushering in local bills ranging from funding for Tampa Bay area museums and public facilities to reforms relevant to the area.
A reformed drug addict, Rouson has long been an advocate for substance abuse treatment and prevention. He sponsored a handful of bills this year that would have upped treatment options for substance abuse and mental health, though his efforts died in committees.
“Senator Rouson has been able to successfully navigate Tallahassee by working with his colleagues across the aisle, which garners him the respect of his peers and the ability to get things done that are important to him and his constituents. An ardent advocate for the arts, as well as issues such as affordable housing and criminal justice reform – Senator Rouson will continue to shoot up this list,” said Laura Boehmer with Southern Strategy Group.
Rouson also doggedly fought for, as he has in the past, deleting a preemption provision in Florida law that blocks local governments from regulating guns. Rouson jumped on that issue in 2015 after a St. Petersburg man who lived in Rouson’s district erected a homemade backyard gun range that presented a safety issue for neighbors. Local authorities were reluctant to do anything about the man’s shooting target, made predominantly of old wooden pallets, because state law preempted them from prohibiting such targets.
Ultimately the man took down his backyard shooting operation in return for free admission to a local gun range, but the issue shined a light on cities’ inability to regulate gun-related activity within their boundaries. He has fought to remove the preemption ever since.
Rouson was also a fierce advocate this year for preserving voter intent in the Amendment 4 implementing bill. The Republican-controlled Legislature ultimately approved a bill tying restoration of voter rights required under the voter-approved Amendment 4 to fines and restitution in ex-felons’ sentences. Rouson, among other Democrats, argued such a provision limited would-be voters’ ability to restore their rights as the Amendment called for.
Rouson also derives power from his willingness to cross party lines. This year, Rouson went against many of his fellow Democrats in supporting a bill that gets the process rolling for creating hundreds of miles of new toll lanes connecting the Tampa Bay area to the Georgia state line. Critics decried the road as unnecessary and harmful to the environment. Supporters like Rouson, however, argued it was a necessary route to meet the demands of a fast-growing population and provide an alternative evacuation route during hurricanes.
“If you’re a Democrat looking for purity and reliability on progressive issues, Darryl may not be your guy in the Tampa Bay delegation. But if you’re looking for a Democrat with a good shot at legislative success in an overwhelmingly Republican Legislature, don’t underestimate him,” said Mercury Public Relations VP and former political editor for the Tampa Bay Times Adam Smith. “The charismatic former registered independent and Republican can tick off colleagues with his elastic ideology, but his knack for transactional politics and cordiality with Republicans makes him more relevant than most Democrats in Tallahassee.”
While Rouson wielded power heading legislative delegations for two of the region’s counties, his slip this year on the list might be because the state’s constitution revision process is over. Rouson served as one of the only Democrats on last year’s Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every decade to consider changes to the state constitution. He played an integral part in getting Amendment 11 on the 2018 ballot, which voters ultimately approved. It repealed the so-called “savings clause” that blocked the Legislature from changing prison sentences after a person had been convicted. The amendment is expected to drastically reduce prison populations be reducing sentences, where appropriate.
Joe Henderson’s take: He spoke out strongly, and righteously, over Republican moves to subvert the intent of Amendment 4 to restore voting rights for felons who have served their sentences. Keep preaching!