TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Republican Party Chairman David Bitner died Thursday at his Monticello home, just two weeks before he was scheduled to step down as the state GOP boss. He was 62.
Officials at the state Republican Party headquarters announced Bitner's death from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, which is more commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. Gehrig, the legendary New York Yankees first baseman who earned the nickname “The Iron Horse,'' for his durability playing in 2,130 consecutive games, died from ALS on June 2, 1941 at the age of 37.
ALS is an incurable disease that progressively attacks the brain and spine and leads to complete paralysis.
Bitner was diagnosed with the disease in April and at that time said he would carry out his duties as long as he could. Eight days ago he said he would step down from his position as the party chairman on Sept. 23 during the high-profile Presidency 5 event in Orlando that will feature a Fox News debate among Republican presidential candidates as well as a straw poll among party activists.
Tributes poured in from Republicans around the state, as well as Bitner's counterpart with the Democratic Party, former state Sen. Rod Smith.
“Chairman Bitner was a tireless advocate for the people of Florida and the state and party he dearly loved,'' Smith said. “His strength of character and dedication were respected by all who knew and worked with him, even those of us on the opposing side.''
Born in Maryland where he was raised on a farm, Bitner moved to Florida in 1967.
He served for many years as general manager of the Port Charlotte-based Charlotte Sun-Herald, helping to build it into one of the most successful newspapers in southwest Florida.
“Dave came to work with the free weekly when we had only four employees,'' said Derek Dunn-Rankin, Chairman of the Suncoast Media Group. “He was the key player in building it into a significant daily newspaper.''
In 1990, Dave sold his interest in the newspaper and joined his wife, Wendy, in starting a company that provided promotional products and business gifts.
Bitner is survived by his wife, daughter Jennifer Blackburn of North Port, three sisters, a brother, four grandchildren and a great grandson.
There were no details immediately available on funeral arrangements.