SEBRING — April Freeman, Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress District 17, died unexpectedly Sunday night.

“Its (sic) with great sadness that I feel I must inform all of you that my beloved wife April passed away suddenly last night,” her husband, David, posted on her Facebook page Monday. “To all of her family and friends here on Facebook, my heart aches with you.”

He told national newspapers and Democratic officials that she died in her sleep of an apparent heart attack. She was 54.

“April is a friend. We are deeply saddened by her loss,” said Neal Golden, chair of the Highlands County Democrats and director of Region 7 of the Florida Democratic Small County Coalition.

Golden said Tuesday he’d known Freeman since he came to Sebring in 2016. They met at the Democratic Party’s Fall Harvest Dinner, the last time she ran for Congressional District 17.

The first single word he used to describe her is “dedicated.”

“Her greatest passion was to help constituents,” Golden said.

When asked if that help was economically, legally or all of the above, Golden said, “all of the above.”

“This district is not the wealthiest district in Florida,” Golden said.

He said Freeman wanted to increase the minimum wage and improve the environment, especially with the many concerns on lands and waterways between Sarasota and Okeechobee counties.

Freeman had won the Democratic primary election on Aug. 28 against Bill Pollard of Sebring for their party endorsement to run for the seat being vacated by retiring GOP incumbent, Representative Tom Rooney. She won with 77 percent of the vote.

State Senator Greg Steube, her Republican opponent, offered condolences via Twitter.

“My thoughts & (sic) prayers are with April Freeman’s family in the wake of her tragic passing,” Steube wrote. “I respect her service to our community and admire her commitment to the causes she cared about. Out of respect to her memory, next week’s campaign events will be cancelled.”

Meanwhile, Golden said, the county-level Democratic Party chairs in the district will meet to pick a candidate to take Freeman’s place.

Those counties, based on the latest map of the district, include southwestern Polk County, southern Sarasota County and northeastern Lee County, along with all of Highlands, Charlotte, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry and Okeechobee counties.

By Florida law, once the state party chair notifies the county chairs of the vacancy, they have five days to meet and make a selection.

Sarah Revell, communications director for the Florida Division of Elections, said Freeman’s name would remain on the ballot, but the vacancy in nomination triggers the process outlined in Florida Statutes 100.111(3)(a).

She said the Democratic Party will have the opportunity to designate a nominee to fill the vacancy, and a notice will be provided to voters indicating that a vote for Freeman will be counted for the person designated by the Democratic Party.

Highlands County Supervisor of Elections Penny Ogg said ballots are already printed and those for overseas military personnel have already been sent.

As soon as she learns who the new candidate will be, Ogg said, she’s prepared to send out an update notice to voters.

Golden said he didn’t know who that new person would be, but thought a decision could be made as early as the end of the day Tuesday.

Her campaign website biography states that Freeman felt compelled to serve her community from watching her aunt and great-grandfather, also elected officials. As the eldest daughter in a working family, her biography states she learned hard work and determination and planned to make policies to better serve Florida residents. She spent the last two election cycles running for Congress, first as nominee for the Florida District 19 Congressional Special Election and November General Election in 2014, then for District 17 in the 2016 election after court-ordered redistricting redrew a portion of southwest Florida.

Before moving to Florida full time more than a decade ago, Freeman worked on the election campaigns of several Detroit area politicians. She also worked as Get Out The Vote director in Cape Coral for the 2012 Presidential Election, and served as deputy state lead and press liaison in Florida for the Presidential Inaugural Committee’s 2013 National Day of Service.

A writer and producer specializing in entertainment promotions, product placement, corporate sponsorship, marketing, publicity and public relations, Freeman lent expertise to projects in entertainment since 1982. She also gained experience in finding funding for charity organizations, as well as sponsorship for recording industry concert tours and endorsement deals for artists signed to those labels.

Freeman also wrote a series of children’s books and sports articles, and was in the process of authoring a self-help book and a political guide for women.

Freeman was also named, honored and awarded the “2005 Business Woman of the Year” award by the RCCC Business advisory council during a White House Dinner, hosted by then-President George W. Bush.

In addition to David, her high school sweetheart and husband, Freeman is survived by two children and two grandchildren.

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