1. Blogs
  2. /
  3. Bay Buzz

Tampa Bay mourns a ‘genuine’ leader: John Morroni dies at age 63

Tributes pour in for the well-liked Pinellas County commissioner, who had already announced he would not seek re-election this year.
Chairman John Morroni during a Board of County Commissioners meeting. [Times files (2012)]
Chairman John Morroni during a Board of County Commissioners meeting. [Times files (2012)]
Published May 21, 2018
Updated May 21, 2018

Longtime Pinellas County Commissioner John Morroni died Sunday night while fighting his third battle against cancer.

He was 63.

As news of Mr. Morroni's death spread, tributes poured in from across the region and Washington, D.C. Dozens of friends penned tributes on his Facebook page, calling the Treasure Island Republican a genuine leader, a gentleman and a warrior.

Commission Chair Ken Welch canceled Tuesday's meeting and said "our hearts are saddened by his passing but eternally grateful for his leadership and vision."

"John had a true passion for serving the community," Welch said. "He put people first. We are a stronger, more inclusive community because of his dedicated public service."

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri called Mr. Morroni "genuine" for how he helped people and never shied away from asking tough questions to public officials.

"He fought the fight for 10 years," Gualtieri said. "This is a guy who loved life and had a plan. He wasn't ready to go. That's what makes this exponentially harder."

Mr. Morroni's most recent leukemia battle started last month and was an effect of treatment he underwent for secondary myelodysplastic syndrome in 2016. He was treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2008. His cancer returned in 2011 but was successfully treated.

Those who knew Mr. Morroni the best said his desire to help others is what kept him going in the past 10 years. He devoted thousands of hours to help raise money for the families of fallen first responders.

What started as a dinner in 1995 is now an annual event that draws hundreds of first responders, politicians and members of the public.

"That dinner meant the world to him," said Brian Lowack, who served as Mr. Morroni's aide between 2012 and 2017. "He thought the world of first responders. The dinner, his smile and the impression he left on others will be his legacy."

He is survived by his wife, Eileen, and his adult son, Michael.

• • •

Born in Chicago in February 1955, Mr. Morroni earned a bachelor's degree in history from Loyola University in 1977 and moved to Florida at age 25. Years ago, he served in top posts in the Republican Party and worked as a legislative aide to former state Rep. Tom Woodruff.

During a run for office in 1992 at age 37, Mr. Morroni defeated five others to win the Republican nomination for House District 50. He was elected and served eight years.

Mr. Morroni, also a real estate agent, was elected to the County Commission's District 6 seat in 2000 and chaired the board in 2005, 2012 and 2015. In his last election in 2014, he cruised to victory in the primary with 66 percent of the vote and faced no opposition in the November election.

Pinellas Commissioner Janet Long, who served alongside Mr. Morroni in the Florida Legislature, said he rarely drew political opponents because he treated people with dignity. He disagreed with opponents, but he rarely disliked them, she added.

"He was a remarkable human being," Long said. "There's nobody that will say he didn't make a difference."

• • •

After representing residents for 25 years, Mr. Morroni announced in March 2017 that he would not seek re-election to a fifth term in 2018.

The announcement came six months after Mr. Morroni received a clean bill of health after being diagnosed with a rare bone marrow disorder. But his health, he said, was not the reason why he was retiring.

He said he made the announcement early so others had time to enter the contest to represent District 6, which generally includes Pinellas Park, Seminole, northeast St. Petersburg and the south beaches.

So far, the announced Republican candidates are state Reps. Larry Ahern of Seminole and Kathleen Peters of South Pasadena, and Barb Haselden, a St. Petersburg resident. Democrat Amy Kedron recently declared her candidacy.

With the general election months away, Gov. Rick Scott could appoint a candidate to complete the remainder of Mr. Morroni's term on the majority-Democrat commission.

"We are reviewing it," spokesman McKinley Lewis said.

• • •

While not flashy or one who sought the limelight, Mr. Morroni was an influential mentor to those who wanted to either enter government service or politics.

Nick Janovsky, a real estate agent and Democratic political consultant, said Mr. Morroni made sure others succeeded in chasing their dreams.

"John had a unique ability to bring consensus and not allow typical partisan gridlock to occur," Janovsky said. "When there was a disagreement, John would pick the phone up and get you on a call to talk it out. John was a man who took a sincere interest in making sure others were successful regardless of party affiliation or industry."

Mr. Morroni wasn't without controversial votes.

In October 2011, the commission, including Mr. Morroni, voted 4-3 to end fluoridation, making Pinellas the largest county in Florida to reject the practice, and drawing national ridicule. He had backed fluoridation when Pinellas first considered it in 2003.

The effort lasted only a year. With two new members after the 2012 election, the commission voted 6-1 to restore fluoride.

Looking back on the vote, Mr. Morroni said that he had been deluged with emails and phone calls from residents who opposed the practice, making it seem like it was a popular decision. But after the election, his outlook changed.

• • •

In 1995, Mr. Morroni held his first Law Enforcement Appreciation Dinner dinner about 18 months after the fatal shooting of Belleair Officer Jeffrey Tackett. Tackett bled to death after being shot on duty and other officers couldn't locate him.

The murder inspired Mr. Morroni, a state representative, to honor local first responders with an annual event that gave proceeds to worthy causes and, if tragedy struck, to a grieving family. Lawmakers later passed the Jeffrey Tackett Law Enforcement Act, which mandated that all police officers have sufficient backup when patrolling.

With Mr. Morroni gone, his annual dinner will carry on.

The 23rd event in February honored a St. Petersburg police K-9 officer, a Dunedin fireman and a Sunstar paramedic and raised more than $80,000 for the Moffitt Cancer Center Foundation — the center where Mr. Morroni received medical treatment.

In what was his last event, Mr. Morroni thanked the crowd for attending.
"I thank you for allowing me to be your state representative for eight years and as your county commissioner for the last 18 years," Mr. Morroni said. "I hope I have made you proud."

John Michael Morroni
Born: Feb. 16, 1955.
Died: May 20, 2018.
Survivors: Wife, Eileen, and son, Michael Morroni, 27.
Memorial service: Arrangements pending.