TALLAHASSEE — U.S. Senate candidate Connie Mack explained Sunday for the first time why he spent more than he earned at times, pinning financial problems on his divorce.
"I think it's ridiculous the fact that the issue has even come up that way," Mack, the Republican front-runner who has called for fiscal austerity during his campaign, said after a candidates' forum. "Everyone knows that divorce is difficult."
Even though his divorce certainly contributed to his financial problems, it does not account for all the troubles he was having.
In 2004, for instance, he didn't have enough money to pay his federal income taxes and borrowed the money from his father. He didn't file for divorce until August 2005 — months after tax-filing season — when his then-wife, Ann McGillicuddy, was on vacation in Fort Lauderdale.
Mack, elected to Congress in 2004, said he could not recall how much he borrowed from his father, former Senator-turned-lobbyist Connie Mack III.
"But look, did I borrow money from my father? Yeah, but if anybody has been through a divorce they recognize that it's difficult, it's hard, and it takes a while to get your financial house back in order," he said.
Three months after filing for divorce, Mack submitted a financial affidavit to the court that indicated he was spending nearly $2,300 more than he netted each month. Even without all of the incidentals of his wife — a stay-at-home mother of two small children — Mack was still over-spending by about $655 monthly, the affidavit indicates.
Mack made the statements after a forum hosted by the Florida Federation of Republican Women. Organizers did not allow for a debate, opting instead for a moderator and audience members to ask similar questions of each candidate for about 30 minutes as opponents waited in another room.
It was Mack's first appearance at an event with the other GOP candidates, former Sen. George LeMieux and retired U.S. Army Reserve Col. Mike McCalister.
The winner of the Republican primary will run against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson this fall.
Mack and McCalister stayed away from personal attacks, though LeMieux criticized Mack for using earmarks and opposing an Arizona-style immigration law.
The candidates were asked about bailouts, how they would avoid an economic crisis akin to Greece, senators whom they admire and the United Nations. The Republican women's group planned to cast a straw poll Sunday, with results announced today.
No one in the audience asked Mack about his finances, nor the court records from his early 20s showing he was involved in two road-rage incidents, a confrontation with a police officer who arrested him at a Jacksonville nightclub and a brawl at an Atlanta bar with a pro baseball player who beat him up.
Mack told reporters he learned a lot from the experiences.
"Look, I made some mistakes when I was younger. I've admitted that," he said. "Someone asked me about the fight, but again, I said that one thing that I regret is that I didn't win. I mean this guy beat me up all over the place."
LeMieux, Mack's main Republican rival, said he's still reviewing the court documents about the brawls and, later, the financial difficulties.
"Character counts," LeMieux said, "and some of these things are not 20 years ago, some of them are while he was in Congress."
One woman asked McCalister to explain "the confusion" between his active and reserve service in the military, which was highlighted by a group of retired military officers who complained he padded his service record.
"I was never confused," he said, to laughs. "I had a total of 33 (years). I was kind of a Cold War soldier, basically."
In a move he thinks would speed up the economic recovery, LeMieux called on legislators to pass an administrative foreclosure process — an alternative to the judicial process, outlined in HB 213 — that would clear Florida's backlog of court cases.
One woman asked LeMieux to convince the room he was not "a fellow moderate" of former Gov. Charlie Crist, reviled by Republicans for leaving the party in his unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid against Marco Rubio.
Crist appointed LeMieux, his former chief of staff and top political adviser, to fill the vacant seat of Sen. Mel Martinez for 16 months. LeMieux drew enthusiastic applause for his response.
"A lot of us in this room, nearly all of us, supported the former governor one time or another. He disappointed all of us," LeMieux said. "That's not who I am."
Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.