It may be the most important election for Florida GOP chairman that Republicans have had in decades, and it's getting uglier by the day.
First opponents of Hillsborough Republican chairwoman Deborah Cox-Roush spread the word that the leading candidate for state party chairwoman was arrested for drunken driving six years ago and had financial problems. Now someone is going after another leading candidate, former state Rep. David Bitner of Monticello.
An anonymous packet dropped at the St. Petersburg Times shows that in 1999 Bitner's wife Wendy sought a domestic violence injunction, accusing Bitner of "pushing her around his office" in Tallahassee and leaving bruises on her arms. The petition, dismissed at Mrs. Bitner's request, says that in 1997 Bitner also pinned her to the floor and choked her "to the point of near unconsciousness."
"I can tell you those things did not happen. It (the court petition) was done on a heated day and in a heated moment. I was very young, and I was irresponsible," Wendy Bitner, who recently celebrated her 20th anniversary, told the Times/Herald on Thursday. "It did not happen. I was upset, and it's a shame that someone is sensationalizing problems somebody had in their marriage."
By many accounts Bitner and Cox-Roush are the leading candidates heading into the Jan. 15 election for state party chairman. Also running are Pinellas state committeeman Tony DiMatteo, Palm Beach County chairman Sid Dinerstein, and Sarasota chairman Joe Gruters, each of whom has his own base of support among the more than 250 party activists and elected officials who are eligible to vote.
"The only thing that's relevant is what the people who vote in this race think is relevant — whether it's experience, background, or anything else," said DiMatteo, insisting he had nothing to do with spreading dirt on Bitner or anyone else. "I don't know anything about the guy because he only joined the party about six months ago."
Gruters, the Sarasota chairman, also said he had nothing to do with it, and said he has tried to rein in overzealous campaign workers.
"If any of my associates or operatives are spreading this stuff, I would immediately fire them," said Gruters, former campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota. "I keep telling my guys we're in the lead. We don't need to do any bashing. This campaign should be about the issues."
Bitner, who served in the state House from 1992 to 2002 and recently resigned as a lobbyist to focus on the party election, said he didn't even know any record existed on the 1999 injunction, which the court never granted because it was voluntarily dismissed at his wife's request. Had he known, he would have told people a bogus allegation could surface, he said.
"I understand that all of a sudden that the stakes in this race have become so high that some people are desperate and they'll do anything," Bitner said. "The person who's being so vindictive, they have to live with themselves. We have our priorities straight."
The bitter election comes after the turbulent tenure of ex-chairman Jim Greer — and a hugely successful election cycle — and the stakes are especially high. Not only is there a presidential election coming, but the next chairman will grapple with redistricting and be in the national spotlight with the 2012 GOP convention in Tampa.
By some accounts the anonymous attacks are succeeding mainly in generating sympathy.
"There's a broad sympathy on the part of all (local party) folks for the candidates and a feeling that they should not be subjected to this malicious abuse, and that it has no relevance to their leadership," said Gulf County state committeeman Allen Cox.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Adam Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.