John Morroni, a veteran Republican politician who had served on both the Pinellas County Commission and in the Florida House of Representatives, has died after a decade-long fight against a barrage of cancers.
Morroni’s final days were spent at the Suncoast Hospice facility in Pinellas Park. He died Sunday evening, peacefully and surrounded by his family.
Morroni had been fighting Acute Myeloid Leukema, a rare type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow. He had been undergoing a series of treatments while hospitalized at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.
News of the Treasure Island Republican’s passing prompted heartfelt tributes from Florida politicians from across the political spectrum. Charlie Justice and Ken Welch, two of his Democratic colleagues on the County Commission took to Facebook to eulogize him, while U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who served with him in the Legislature, did so on Twitter. Republican state Rep. Chris Latvala extolled Morroni’s support of law enforcement and other first responders, while Pinellas GOP Chairman Nick DiCeglie said he was “heartbroken” by Morroni’s passing.
Morroni served Pinellas County District 6 since 2000. He chaired the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners in 2005, 2012 and 2015. While he underwent treatment, Morroni continued to receive briefings on county business on a weekly basis
In March 2017, Morroni said he would not seek a fifth term on the Commission, ending a 25-year career in elective office.
It’s unclear at this point when Governor Rick Scott will appoint someone to fill out the remaining portion of Morroni’s term.
Before his tenure with the county, Morroni served eight years in the Florida House, from 1992 to 2000.
Earlier this year, Morroni hosted the 23rd Annual Appreciation Dinner for Emergency Personnel, raising more than $80,000 to benefit Moffitt Cancer Center.
The annual dinner, initially conceived in 1995, honors fallen police officer Jeffrey Tackett. The Jeffrey Tackett Law Enforcement Act was created in his memory, which mandates all police officers have sufficient backup when patrolling.
Tackett, a Belleair police officer, was shot and killed as he was attempting to handcuff a prowler suspect June 13, 1993.
This was the fourth time Morroni had fought for his life. He first learned he had non-Hodgkin lymphoma in the fall of 2008. He was 53. He spent six months undergoing chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation before he could share the good news that the cancer was gone.
Four years later, during a follow-up CAT scan done the second week in December, he found out the cancer had returned. Morroni underwent a stem cell transplant and “toxic” chemotherapy. That treatment was more difficult and took longer. It also required a lengthy hospital stay.
After the treatment, Morroni’s doctors had believed that the stem cell treatment would keep his cancer in check for a long time, the commissioner said in a Dec. 20, 2011 interview.
“Hopefully until I’m at least 80,” he said. “And they’re finding out stuff about stem cell transplants all the time. It’s so exciting and promising. Maybe they’ll find the cure in my lifetime.”
However, it was not to be. County Communications sent out a news release July 5, 2016 announcing that Morroni would be undergoing treatment at Moffitt Cancer Center for a rare blood disorder known as secondary myelodysplastic syndrome, which was a secondary effect of the chemotherapy he received to treat non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2012.
Morroni’s treatment in 2016 also included a stem cell transplant. Unlike his previous treatment, when the stem cells were his own, he received stem cells from a donor.
Morroni’s new diagnosis of AML is a secondary effect of treatment he underwent for myelodysplastic syndrome in 2016. According to the American Cancer Society, myelodysplastic syndrome is a type of cancer in which damaged cells in the bone marrow make defective blood cells. The body destroys the defective cells, which can leave a person with low blood counts. In some cases, MDS can progress to leukemia.
Morroni’s final cancer – Acute Myeloid Leukemia – develops from cells that would turn into white blood cells, but some cases of AML develop in other types of blood-forming cells, according to the ACS. AML starts in the bone marrow (the soft inner part of certain bones, where new blood cells are made), but in most cases it quickly moves into the blood. It can sometimes spread to other parts of the body including the lymph nodes, liver, spleen, central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and testicles. “Acute” means that this leukemia can progress quickly if not treated, and would probably be fatal in a few months.
Throughout his decade long fight against the cancers which plagued him, Morroni remained characteristically upbeat.
“A positive mental attitude is important. Having faith is even better,” he said in 2011. “I believe in God, which was a big help, along with having family and friends to check on me. I thank God I was able to get through the year.”
Morroni is survived by his wife, Eileen. They have one son, Mike.
Material from Tampa Bay Newspapers was used in this post.