Sunday, February 25, 2018
Politics

Connie Mack's past altercations again a campaign issue

TALLAHASSEE — A younger Connie Mack IV explained two road rage incidents, an arrest at a Jacksonville bar and a bar fight with a Major League Baseball star the same way: He was minding his own business, sober and trouble found him.

Now that Mack is a 44-year-old member of Congress and running for Senate, he and his campaign have chalked up the string of altercations as Mack being "young and foolish." But while suing former Atlanta Braves outfielder Ron Gant, 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.

If so, it was an incredible string of bad luck. His opponent in the Republican primary, former Sen. George LeMieux, is trying to depict the altercations, the last of which was when Mack was 24, as part of a pattern of irresponsible behavior that shows Mack doesn't have the temperament to serve as a senator. 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 altercations were used against Mack when he first ran for the House in a district that's firmly Republican. This year, though, millions of voters who haven't heard about them before will be making their judgments. Whether it has an impact on the race is questionable.

"I don't know that it really will make that big of a difference," said Susan Moore, who chairs 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 none of the damages and legal fees he sought.

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 in 1996, 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 like comedian Howie Mandel, which apparently upset the driver 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.

• 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 didn't contain accounts from the other men involved in the road rage 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 then 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, the great-grandson of Baseball Hall of Fame manager Connie 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 all seven games in the National League Championship Series and all seven World Series games. 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 displays anger.

"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 'Okay, he's grown up.' "

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