ORLANDO -- Florida Republicans unanimously elevated Jacksonville businessman Lenny Curry to their party chairmanship Friday night in a somber meeting marked by tributes to the late state GOP chief Dave Bitner.
"I am ready to serve as the Republican Party of Florida chairman," Curry told the 181 members of the state executive committee who voted for him. "I am focused like a laser on ensuring that we have the leadership to stop Barack Obama's big-government agenda."
Curry, 41, was elected vice chairman last January when Bitner, a former state legislator, became chairman. Bitner was stricken with ALS, the debilitating affliction known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, and had planned to turn over the party to Curry during this weekend's Presidency 5 conference.
Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, nominating Curry for the chair, cited Bitner's letter of resignation, in which he asked that Curry fulfill his term, which runs through the 2012 elections. "It's why we have a vice chairman," she said.
State Sen. John Thrasher of Jacksonville, who was speaker of the House when Bitner served there, said "we could not have had a better friend than Dave Bitner."
Curry, a Jacksonville accountant and business consultant, said the party is in good shape after two tumultuous years that saw former chairman Jim Greer forced to resign, and indicted on criminal charges involving party contracting. Thrasher filled in for 10 months between Greer's ouster and Bitner's election as chairman.
Besides winning Florida's 29 electoral votes for the GOP nominee, Curry said the state party is also gearing up to defeat U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the lone Democrat remaining in statewide elected office. The Presidency 5 weekend featured a debate of presidential candidates Thursday night, speeches by the four GOP Senate candidates on Friday and a presidential straw ballot on Saturday.
"Barack Obama and Bill Nelson have no idea what small-business owners and families have to go through," Curry said. "Neither one of them ever created a job but we are going to make sure that they find out what it means to find a new job."
After the vote, Curry said he favors an early presidential primary. National party rules require all states to wait for March 6, except for Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. A special state commission has been created to set the date for Florida. On Friday, the commission delayed until Sept. 30 a final decision on a Florida primary date, but said it generally favored holding it as soon after South Carolina's Feb. 28 primary as possible.
"Florida needs to go early - early enough to have a big voice," said Curry. "Florida Republicans are pretty close to what you see nationwide. We're a real test of electability."