TALLAHASSEE — Just over three months since being elected chairman of Florida's Republican Party, David Bitner said Friday he has been diagnosed with ALS, a progressive and ultimately fatal neurodegenerative disease.
The 62-year-old former legislator was as upbeat and energetic as ever as he wheeled into a GOP headquarters conference room in a snazzy new motorized wheelchair.
"Give me a break if I run into something," Bitner said. "This is the first day I've really been driving this thing around."
Life expectancy of an ALS patient averages two to five years from the time of diagnosis, according to the ALS Association, but "this disease is variable and many people live with quality for five years and more."
Bitner had been using a motorized scooter and walker for two months because of weakness in his legs and arms, but the diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often called Lou Gehrig's disease, came recently.
"Though the diagnosis was difficult to hear, it has not dampened my passion for serving as your chairman or my motivation to make the Republican Party of Florida as strong as possible heading into the 2012 election," Bitner wrote in an e-mail Friday to members of the Republican executive committee.
He told reporters he expects to remain active leading the party.
"The only thing I have is weakness. It's hard for me to take a bottle top off, but I can still sign. I'm signing charters now, 200-some of them for new clubs," Bitner said. "I get up in the morning and get my shower, and my wife helps with that, and that's not really a bad thing, guys, I've got to tell you."
Republican Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon hailed Bitner for his courage. They said they supported him staying on as chairman heading into a heated election cycle featuring a "Presidency 5" conference and televised presidential debate in September, followed by a year consumed with redistricting and campaigns for U.S. Senate and the White House.
"Today, I ask all Floridians to keep Republican Party chairman Dave Bitner and his family in their thoughts and prayers," Florida Democratic chairman Rod Smith said in a statement. "His determination to continue as Republican Party chairman as he seeks treatment is courageous, setting an example for all Floridians with this tragic disease."
Bitner said his van is specially equipped with a ramp so he can drive the wheelchair into the vehicle's right-front passenger seat area. His wife Wendy — whom Bitner calls "the warden"— does all the driving.
He planned to be at a party event in Jacksonville today and the state party quarterly meeting on May 13, followed by a three-day Republican National Committee meeting in Dallas.
The former state legislator from Port Charlotte described himself as "prolife" and said he opposes expanded use of stem cell research to seek a cure for ALS.
Joking about being in a wheelchair, he said: "I probably won't be doing a lot of door-to-door campaigning for candidates this summer."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Adam Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.