A former U.S. senator is zeroing in on decades-old altercations involving U.S Rep. Connie Mack IV to make the case that Mack shouldn't become the Republican party nominee in this year's Florida Senate contest.
Former Sen. George LeMieux, Mack's primary opponent, is depicting the altercations as part of a pattern of irresponsible behavior that shows the 44-year-old congressman doesn't have the temperament to serve as a senator.
Mack and his campaign have chalked up the string of altercations, the last of which occurred two decades ago, to him being "young and foolish." They include two road rage incidents, an arrest at a Jacksonville bar and a bar fight with a Major League Baseball star.
However, court records reveal that Mack explained each incident the same way: He was minding his own business, sober and trouble found him. While suing former Atlanta Braves outfielder Ron Gant, with whom he got in a bar fight in the early 1990s, Mack told lawyers that he was the victim and he didn't instigate anything during any of the incidents.
"So you were just again the unlucky guy in the wrong place at the wrong time?" a lawyer asked him during a deposition after Mack answered questions about each of the altercations.
"I guess so," Mack responded.
Mack's campaign says the focus should now be on issues and Mack's congressional record, not on incidents from 20 to 25 years ago. The GOP primary is Aug. 14, and the winner will face U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat.
Mack, a conservative who is the great-grandson of Baseball Hall of Fame manager Connie Mack, was first elected to Congress from Southwest Florida in 2004. LeMieux, a former chief of staff to former Gov. Charlie Crist, served 16 months in the Senate after being appointed by Crist to complete the term of former Republican Sen. Mel Martinez. That Senate seat is now held by Republican Marco Rubio, who defeated Crist and a Democrat in a three-way contest last year.
The altercations were used against Mack when he first ran for the House in a firmly Republican district. Badly trailing Mack in polls, LeMieux recently revived them and even likened Mack to actor Charlie Sheen.
"I don't know that it really will make that big of a difference," said Susan Moore, chairwoman of the Escambia County Republican Party. "Hopefully people have the capability of realizing we don't always make great decisions, but that doesn't mean we're not qualified to seek political office and move on. It might be different if it was something he did two weeks ago."
Mack broke his ankle during the fight with Gant and later sued the baseball star and Calico Jack's, the now-closed Atlanta bar where the fight took place. Like LeMieux is doing now, Gant's and the bar's lawyers at the time tried depicting Mack as having a habit of getting into fights. A jury ruled in favor of Mack, but awarded him no damages or legal fees.
Mack's campaign said he won't discuss the incidents with The Associated Press, saying he has already answered questions about them. But here's how Mack explained each incident during a deposition taken four years after the fight with Gant:
— Sometime around 1987 when Mack was in college, he was driving and stopped at a drawbridge with friends in Palm Beach County. One of his friends was screaming to mimic comedian Howie Mandel, which apparently upset the driver in the vehicle next to them. When the man approached Mack's car, Mack got out and the man jumped on him. The two wrestled, struck each other and when the drawbridge went back down, Mack got back in his car and drove off.
— Within the next year, Mack's girlfriend was driving his car when a driver forced her off the road. Both cars stopped and Mack got out. The other driver tried to punch Mack, so Mack punched him. The driver went back to his car, grabbed a baseball bat and chased Mack around the car and smashed its windows.
— In 1989, Mack and two friends were at a Jacksonville nightclub and Mack had nothing to drink. A bouncer asked the three men to leave because one of Mack's friends was violating the club's no-hats policy. Mack asked to speak to the manager and questioned why they had to leave. The manager didn't have time to talk with him and asked an off-duty sheriff's deputy to escort them out of the club. Mack never resisted, never cursed, yet was still arrested. Mack pleaded no contest to resisting an officer without violence, and the case was later expunged.
— In 1992, Mack used Gant's table to sign a credit card receipt while getting ready to leave Calico Jack's. Gant shoved Mack twice. The second time, he was hurled toward a crowd, which pushed him back. As he was thrust forward toward Gant, Mack put his hands out to brace his fall and Gant got him in a headlock. He hit Gant's genitals in an attempt to free himself, fearing he might be choked to death.
While court records in the civil suit don't contain accounts from the other men involved in the road incidents, conflicting stories emerged in the Jacksonville and Atlanta encounters.
Gant said Mack bumped him three times and refused to get out of the way as Gant was trying to get to his table. Gant used his arm to push Mack aside and Mack then charged him with his head down and arms outstretched in an attempt to tackle him. They fell to the ground and tussled until a bouncer lifted Gant off Mack. A waitress said Mack bought about 20 pitchers of beer and rounds of shots while at the bar for five hours. She said Mack had trouble walking, was obnoxious, clearly drunk and started the fight. Mack said he was feeling no effect from the two to four beers and one shot he had while at the bar for less than two hours.
Mack told lawyers he was a baseball fan and high school player who at one point hoped of playing professional sports. He said he watched postseason baseball, including the World Series. But he said he didn't know who Gant was or recognize his name. The season before the February fight, Gant played in the National League Championship Series and the World Series. He finished sixth in Most Valuable Player voting and was in his league's top five in doubles, home runs, runs scored and runs batted in. Gant agreed to a $2.7 million, one-year contract the same week of the fight.
— In the Jacksonville incident, the nightclub manager said he was called to the entrance where Mack refused to take off his hat. He asked Mack to remove it and Mack responded with a vulgarity. Mack was told if he didn't take off his hat, he would have to leave. Mack said he wasn't leaving and he wasn't taking off his hat. An off-duty police officer was called over and Mack tried provoking him, repeatedly calling him a "piece of (excrement)" and refusing to leave.
LeMieux said the number of incidents is a sign of trouble and questioned whether there are others that haven't been made public.
"My experience in these types of circumstances is that where there's smoke there's fire and where there's one or two events, there's more. So that's something else that should be of concern, is how much more is going to get revealed," LeMieux said.
Mack's campaign said it has not received any phone calls or comments from voters concerned about the incidents.
Republican political strategist Jamie Miller, who doesn't work for either campaign, said the incidents likely won't have a big impact on voters unless Mack again loses his temper.
"Campaigns are intense and personal. If he has any of those tendencies, we will see them. If those were youthful tendencies and we don't see them, I think people will give him a pass," Miller said. "If he runs a disciplined campaign and he's a disciplined individual I think people will look at him and say 'OK, he's grown up.'"
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.