(The following profile was
published as the front page story in the
January 3, 2003
Tampa Bay Review.)
Some attorneys are born into
the right families and the right social circles. They attend
the right schools, and their careers become a series of wide
open doors with huge retainers waiting on the other side.
Other attorneys scrape and struggle for
every lump of cubic zirconia, looking for an enchanted door that
will open just enough to slip a pauper's boot in.
The story of St. Petersburg attorney
Darryl Rouson, who in 1981 was the first African-American assistant
state attorney in Pinellas County and is now president of the
St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP, combines elements of both.
And when he finally found the right door, he exploded noisily
Newspaper stories in 2002 often featured
the exploits of the senior partner in the law office of Rouson
& Dudley, P.A. He represented troubled former baseball star
Darryl Strawberry when the former Yankees star was accused of
violating his parole by getting thrown out of a drug treatment
center. And incoming Florida State Attorney General Charlie Crist
put Rouson on his official transition team.
As head of the NAACP, he made headlines
by demanding a "fair share agreement" for African-American
and other minority contractors on the $41 million rebuilding
of Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg. And when the city announced
in December that a new cruise ship would be docking in the municipal
port, Rouson wasted no time calling for minority representation
on the ship's board of directors. Of course, that call was made
on the heels of one of his biggest successes: pushing the parent
company of the St. Petersburg Times to honor a long-standing
commitment to diversifying its own board.
"As I told Darryl, no one likes
to be crowded," says Andrew Barnes, chairman of the board
and chief executive of Times Publishing Co., "But if you're
being crowded in a direction you'd like to go, that's OK."
Barnes says it's fair to give Rouson
a share of the credit for moving the Times to appoint Karen Brown
Dunlap, dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute - eight years
after Barnes himself made a commitment to minority participation
on the board. But Barnes says it was the newspaper's diversity
officer, Sebastian Dortch, who looked him in the eye earlier
this year and said, "Let me tell you how it seems in your
organization to be African-American."
"That happened before Darryl surfaced,"
Barnes says. "But when someone's prodding you, it's a factor.
All of that conspired to move it up a notch."
Unlike others before him who raised the
issue with Barnes, Rouson's credibility in making his argument
and getting results was enhanced by two factors. Number one,
according to Barnes: "Darryl's family has a huge history
with the Times. His mother was a stringer for the Evening
Independent. She was an immensely attractive and vital, able
person. Two of his sisters, Janine and Brigette, interned at
the Poynter Institute. And Brigette went on to write for Congressional
Quarterly and later became a lawyer for the American Newspaper
Second, and perhaps more important, was
Rouson's personal friendship and professional history with St.
Petersburg attorney and developer George Rahdert, who represents
the Times on First Amendment issues. Rouson wasn't above
lobbying his friend for support on minority representation and
Rahdert wasn't above working the issue with Barnes.
"George and I agreed that (minority
representation on the board) was a desirable purpose," Barnes
says. "Sure, we talked about it."
"Andy knows that Darryl is an extremely
good friend of mine and someone I also have a professional relationship
with," says Rahdert, senior partner in Rahdert Steele Bryan
& Bole. "I suppose it's possible that my acknowledged
friendship with Darryl added some credibility to what he had
to say. But Darryl makes a good point."
Nothing is as neat as that when it comes
to Darryl Rouson. Because in the midst of his campaign to pressure
the newspaper, the Times reported that Rouson - revealed
several years earlier by the paper as a recovering cocaine addict
- filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
"He didn't feel we should do it,"
Barnes says. "But Darryl is a public figure. And I'll be
goddamned if I was going to hide it."
o o o
Born in New Orleans, raised in St. Petersburg
and a graduate of Xavier University and the University of Florida
Spessard Holland Law Center, it is difficult to imagine Darryl
Ervin Rouson ever doing anything quietly.
When he came back to St. Petersburg in
1998 after an absence of more than a decade - during which he
was in and out of treatment centers, worked as a counselor himself
and also did a stint in Chicago with Cook County Government)
- Rouson studied the legal landscape.
"I asked myself, 'What is it about
me that distinguishes me from the rest? How can I impress upon
people that I care about their problems and legal matters?"
For a man whose mantra comes from the
title of Wall Street lawyer Reginald F. Lewis' 1994 posthumous
autobiography, Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun?,
it didn't take Rouson long to settle on high visibility as a
way of hitting the ground running.
He concluded that few black lawyers in
St. Petersburg immerse themselves in hard community issues and
problems. "It also occurred that I could make my weakness,
addiction, a strength. If I chose to keep it secret, it could
be used against me," Rouson says. "I think it's always
going to be a part of who I am. I'm no longer ashamed or embarrassed.
My journey is what made me who I am today, in all its ugliness
He put himself front and center as a
leader in efforts to take back neighborhoods in south St. Petersburg
from drug dealers. Rouson challenged the owners of retail outlets
to be accountable and responsible for what he calls "negative
items" such as drug paraphernalia sold on their premises.
He sued several motels for creating public nuisances. He bought
an entire block of crack houses.
"I can't stop a person from getting
high," Rouson says. "But I can use my legal talents
to stop people from profiting off the illnesses of others."
o o o
So how does Darryl Rouson make a living?
"Unfortunately," he says, "I'm
in what you call a hustle practice, which is 55 percent personal
injury, 30 percent criminal, and 15 percent probate and civil
litigation, nuisance suits. What I want to develop, like any
other firm, is steady work. Steady retainer work."
Reaching that goal demands a greater
focus on relationship building with area corporations, community
leaders, and his fellow attorneys.
"You can't build very good relationships
in the community by suing everybody," Rouson says. "And
it's not attractive to always be engaged in defense of criminal
activity. My prayer is that our community, the black community,
stands up and supports us by bringing the good cases to us. That's
how Willie Gary made it big. We are also available to co-counsel
on good cases and issues where it may make a difference that
we are involved."
Rouson can stand on a street corner or
in a court of law until he is blue in the face, saying the right
things, even the politically correct things. But he admits there
will still be firms that won't touch him with a 10-foot sterilized
pole. The fear of backsliding will always be in the room with
"There wasn't a self-respecting
firm that would have given me a job when I came home in 1998
given the issues is my life at that time," Rouson says.
"I couldn't have survived as long as (judges) Charles Cope
or David Patterson if I had those same issues and it had been
me. I'm not naive about that. But I take my sobriety seriously
and do not compromise it for any issue or any person."
o o o
The big stick technique that Rouson applied
to the St. Petersburg Times and Pinellas County School
Board is the same one he beats corporations with every day in
search of more "fair share" opportunities. Those opportunities
could be for the greater good of the African-American community,
or just for one of its favorite sons - Darryl Rouson. Just depends
upon which hat he's wearing at the time.
"As a lawyer, my strategy is to
build powerful relationships," he says. "I believe
that I have to go to the big companies like Echelon or Sembler,
and all the Tech Datas of the world, and tell them my services
are available and competitive and of quality. I can't just sit
back and wait for someone to give me something because of past
That approach sometimes carries over
to Rouson's role as president of the St. Pete NACCP chapter.
But not always.
"You want powerful relationships
as NAACPers," he says. "But you have to maintain a
real sense of independence so you can challenge these powerful
relationships when negotiations fail. We prefer negotiations.
But we realize it sometimes takes agitation to move institutions
and people from zones of comfort to zones of righteousness."
o o o
Challenging 73-year-old Garnelle Jenkins
for the top post in the St. Pete NAACP in November 2000 put Darryl
Rouson on the Tampa Bay area political map. And when he stunned
the 21-year incumbent and won election to the chapter's presidency,
Rouson's message was clear: If you can't run with the big dogs,
stay on the porch.
"We're living in exciting and challenging
times in Pinellas County. A new standard of leadership amongst
African-Americans is being raised up. We have Calvin Harris,
Ken Welch, Renee Flowers, Earnest Williams, Frank Peterman, Mary
Brown. The old guard is changing. I'm not surprised at some of
the success we've enjoyed at the NAACP."
Apparently the membership of the St.
Pete chapter is pleased; Rouson was re-elected, unopposed, to
a second term on November 19. It may, however, be his last term.
"I'm challenged to really make my
mark," he says, "because I can't do this forever. I
have to make a living again, practicing law. I want to slow down
a little bit from some of the community stuff and secure financial
independence for my family."
o o o
Rouson's biggest nemesis remains the
one he sees in the mirror every morning. He has caused himself
more damaged over the last two decades than any one client or
community leader could ever single-handedly cause.
His first marriage, to Adrienne, collapsed
when he became a drug addict. "My first wife kicked me to
the curb and ran over me with the bus because of addition issues,"
he says. "I lost everything I had." They had two daughters;
one is a sophomore at his alma mater, Xavier; the younger girl
is a junior in high school. Rouson was estranged from the girls
He subsequently cleaned himself up and
remarried in 1990, only to fall back into bad habits when his
second wife, Ruby, was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer.
Rouson, who had a son with Ruby, endured a second round of rehab
after Ruby died in 1997.
He married a third time, to Angela, in
1999, and now is the father of two more boys, ages 2 and five
Rouson, who has been clean since March
17, 1998, is now an aggressive anti-drug crusader, one who wears
his rehabilitation as a badge of merit. He makes no effort to
hide this ugly part of his past. The walls of his office lobby
include a St. Petersburg Times story in which he was photographed
in one of the crack houses where he once bought cocaine and got
high. There is also a profile from Recovery magazine (January
2002): "Rebel with a Cause: Darryl Rouson."
"When I first started with him,"
says Rouson's partner, Tamara Felton Dudley, 34, "he would
take me into the community, to places where there were a lot
of drug dealers. He would say to them, 'Why don't you get off
the street? Get a job!' Then he would give them his business
card. We would leave court to do that."
State Rep. Frank Peterman (District 55)
is an old friend and fraternity brother of Rouson's.
"Darryl is on a mission," according
to Peterman. "He's been wanting to make up for a time earlier
in his life. He's running fast to get to higher levels that he
believes god has taken him to. He's redeeming the time."
o o o
The question any reasonable person might
draw from reading about the never sedentary life of Darryl Rouson
is this: How do addiction, bankruptcy and community leadership
play in the daily struggle of running a Tampa Bay area law firm?
And what kind of lawyer is Darryl Rouson?
Let's look at the second question first.
David Demers is chief judge of the Sixth
Judicial Circuit in Pinellas County. He saw Rouson in action,
pre-addiction and three marriages ago.
"When he was a state attorney, he
was a phenomenal trial attorney," according to Demers. "He
represented the state and did a great job. He certainly wasn't
bombastic. He was an advocate in the finest sense of the word,
an effective cross-examiner. He had all the skills that a good
litigator should have."
More recently, attorney George Rahdert
has seen Rouson in action on his behalf. "He's a highly
principled individual, on a personal level as well as on a professional
level," Rahdert says. "He's a guy you can really trust
with your friendship. I'll also testify that he's a very good
lawyer. I've hired him to represent me, personally, and he's
done a very good job. What gets lost in all the hoopla is he's
a very skilled lawyer."
As for the way Rouson conducts his business
and whether or not he is reliable, Rahdert offers his unconditional
"I think I'm a pretty good judge
of legal skills," he says. "The times he has represented
me, I've been very pleased with his ability and outcome. If there's
a perception in the community that he should be avoided because
of his past, I think it's a misperception. He's really gifted."
Andy Barnes has also experienced Rouson
up close and person. "He's a guy who has immense charisma,"
the top executive at the Times says. "Just exactly
where he's going to fit in, I'm not sure."
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