Florida State Senator Darryl Rouson isn’t up for reelection until 2020, but like his Democratic colleagues on the federal level, Rouson is wasting no time in building a coalition to ensure his success. Last week, Rouson hosted the second of what will be dozens of small community leader roundtables throughout his district, District 19, which encompasses both south Pinellas County and east and south Hillsborough County.
Rouson appears keenly aware that in order to keep his seat next election, he’ll need a broad coalition of influential voters on both sides of the bay on his team. Activists and community leaders from St. Petersburg joined Rouson at Crescent Lake Park to talk about the 2019 session’s wins and losses, and to look forward to the 2020 session. Organizers and activists including Amy Weintraub of Progress Florida, Lisa Perri of Common Ground Project, Lindsay Cross of Florida Conservation Voters, and Amy Keith of the League of Women Voters sat around tables with nonprofit and civic leaders like Karen Davis-Pritchett of Empath Health, Dr. Keesha Benson of Grow Smarter, and Terri Lipsey Scott of the Carter G. Woodson African American History Museum.
The leaders brought issues from their own sectors to discuss, from affordable housing to health care, to funding for projects related to art, education and history. Some activists asked Rouson where he thought hot button issues like the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion bans could be headed in Florida, and asked him to be a champion for women in these causes.
Rouson reflected on what he called a “difficult” 2019 session in terms of the numerous bills that Democrats in the minority were unable to prevent from passing through the legislature. Rouson called out the ban on sanctuary cities, the implementation bill of Amendment 4, the expansion of Florida’s Guardian program that allowed for school personnel (including teachers) to be armed, and the expanded private school voucher system as losses for Florida Democrats.
But the session was not without its wins, even for the minority party. Rouson helped secure increased funding for the arts from $2 million in 2018 to $24 million in 2019. He also secured mental health and substance abuse dollars to help combat the opioid crisis. He was also involved in criminal justice reform that changed the monetary threshold for a felony conviction of theft from $300 to $750, and reformed drivers license suspensions only for driving-related offenses.
Rouson described his approach to governing as a three-legged stool. First, he said, the goal is always to pass good policy, then to prevent bad policy, then to “speak policy through budget” through his roles on multiple appropriations committees, including criminal and civil justice and health and human services.
In previewing the next session, Rouson said he expects to see bills in legislature next year focused on environment, reproductive rights, criminal justice reform (and possibly gun safety reform), as well as mental health care funding, especially in schools.