While Sen. Darryl Rouson has served in the State Legislature for 15 years, much of his presentation at a private event focused on what he overcame to get to that point.
The upscale Sea Salt restaurant in downtown St. Petersburg juxtaposed Rouson’s stories of homelessness, addiction and his continued fight to increase economic inclusion. Wednesday night’s event was the latest Florida Economic Club Community Leader Social, and the term-limited senator credited turning his weaknesses into strengths for his success.
Rouson said he is the first Democrat “in decades” to serve as vice chair of the Appropriations Committee. “I’ve learned to work across the aisle,” he added.
“I’ve learned that every issue is not a Republican issue; it’s not a Democratic issue,” Rouson said. “It’s a human issue.”
Seven senators represent the region. Rouson is the only one with constituents on both sides of the bay.
He lives near the Sunshine Skyway, and his District 16 stretches from north Tampa to downtown St. Pete. The Florida Economic Club’s Community Leader Socials alternate between those cities and Sarasota.
Wednesday night’s event was not an opportunity for Rouson to broaden his voter base. In November 2022, voters reelected him to his final term.
Despite 15 years as a lawmaker – he became a state representative in 2008 – Rouson has never served in the majority. However, the moderate Democrat is no stranger to overcoming adversity.
Rouson, now celebrating over 25 years of sobriety, regaled attendees as he discussed how he became addicted to cocaine in the 1980s. After leaving the area to attend a drug treatment center, he returned to St. Pete homeless.
Rouson, an attorney, found himself sleeping on the floor of his office with his 4-year-old son. “So, they said I couldn’t be anything because of what I was,” he said.
A local pastor convinced Rouson to run for president of the local NAACP chapter. “He said, ‘Yeah, why not you. You have a story; you have a mission,” Rouson added.
He went on to lead the organization, which jumpstarted a decades-long fight to help marginalized communities. Rouson relayed an eight-year struggle to increase editorial diversity at the then-St. Petersburg Times.
Then was also the historically African American Gibbs High School’s $43 million renovation in 2003. Rouson said the project initially lacked any Black subcontractors.
He told the lead construction company they would “back over me with a backhoe” before he let them rebuild Gibbs without Black businesses. Rouson said $9 million went to those subcontractors within two weeks.
Around the same time, Rouson lobbied city officials to become the city’s first Black attorney for lucrative Tropicana Field bond deals. When his pleas for diversity went unanswered, he chained himself to a chair in St. Petersburg City Attorney John Wolfe’s office.
“I said, ‘If you’re going to lock me out, I’m going to lock me in,'” Rouson told attendees. “The whole point that I’m making is that the fight for diversity, equity inclusion didn’t just start today. It’s been going on for a long time in this city.
“It’s been difficult in Tallahassee. Now it’s a curse word.”
Rouson explained how aspects of that ongoing struggle have come full circle. In the early 2000s, crack dealers approached him around 18th Avenue and 22nd Street South.
He sued the property owner, which led to Rouson helping acquire the land for a Sweetbay Supermarket in a food desert. Rouson said that was the area’s first grocery store in 31 years, and what is now Tangerine Plaza has remained mostly vacant since a Walmart Neighborhood Market left the site in 2017.
Rouson noted that city officials promised revitalization and jobs when they displaced thousands of African Americans from the Historic Gas Plant District. Residents received Tropicana Field and its sprawling parking lots.
“And people want to know why the Black community is so upset and wants to be involved in the redevelopment of Tropicana Field,” Rouson said. “We’re still waiting … and that’s why we fight so hard.”
He looks forward to the upcoming legislative session and said substance abuse, mental health and criminal justice issues would remain priorities. Rouson believes Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign will keep him occupied and his “foot off the grave” of potential legislation.
Rouson wants people to remember that he “cared about the community” after he completes his final term. He also wants them to know that while he is not proud of every step, he is no longer embarrassed by his journey.
After the event, when asked for his thoughts on the current city administration’s quest to increase diversity and inclusion, Rouson said, “They can’t solve all of the problems in one year. But they’re giving a lot of direction and hope.
“This battle has been going on for a long time, man.”