TALLAHASSEE — Just as U.S. Rep. Connie Mack looked as if he would escape a campaign controversy over a property tax break, his top Republican rival in the U.S. Senate race hosted a Wednesday press conference armed with a zinger over his other legal troubles.
"Connie Mack IV is the Charlie Sheen of Florida politics," said Sen. George LeMieux, a former U.S. senator. "Mack IV does not have the temperament or the character to serve in the United States Senate."
LeMieux wrapped his remarks around what he called Mack's "rap sheet:" four physical confrontations when he was in his early 20s, one arrest and then a host of financial troubles that became clear during his divorce shortly after he was elected to Congress.
Mack's court record was detailed last week in a Miami Herald story, followed by a Tampa Tribune report that questioned whether the congressman was unlawfully receiving a homestead property-tax exemption at his Fort Myers condominium.
Lee County Property Appraiser Ken Wilkinson said he would double-check to make sure the congressman is legally getting the tax break, even though his wife, U.S. Rep. Mary Bono Mack, has a homestead exemption in her California district.
"I think they'll be okay. That's my gut feeling," Wilkinson said. "But I now have an obligation to check this out."
The issue cropped up shortly after Mack criticized Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson for taking advantage of another tax break, an agricultural exemption on a Brevard County property that has cows on it. The controversy — followed by LeMieux's haymaking Wednesday — was the latest sign that the U.S. Senate race, overshadowed by the presidential contest until recently, is becoming heated.
Mack's campaign chairman, Jeff Cohen, hit back with a written statement suggesting LeMieux was "amoral," while questioning his work as the top adviser for former Gov. Charlie Crist, who left the Republican primary in his unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate in 2010 against Marco Rubio.
"You probably thought that hugging Barack Obama was a good photo op for Charlie, too," Cohen said in his statement, referencing Crist's physical and literal embrace of the president's 2009 stimulus package, which Mack opposed.
The frontrunner in the Senate race, Mack has been on the defensive lately. He was at pains to explain his financial and legal troubles in his past and, on Sunday, he came in third place in a grass roots straw poll hosted by the Florida Federation of Republican Women.
LeMieux took first; Plant City businessman Mike McCalister came in second.
After the straw poll vote, Mack had to contend with the homestead controversy. His campaign and lawyer maintain he did nothing wrong.
Under Florida law, a family can have only one homestead exemption, which shields the taxable-value increase of a home. The reason: A homestead is a full-time home, and the state Constitution seeks to encourage stable residents.
That means a family can only have a single permanent home. Not two.
But what happens if two people with separate homesteads then marry and keep their separate homes? The law isn't clear.
So it's up to the property appraiser to decide initially. Then it can go to the courts.
"It is a conundrum," Wilkinson said. "This can happen. It happened here in Lee County and my predecessor before I took office in 1980 was sued over it. And he lost."
The whole issue comes down to two words: "family unit."
If Mack can demonstrate that he has a "separate family unit" from his current wife, he can likely keep his homestead exemption on his Fort Myers condominium. To show the separateness, Wilkinson said, Mack and his wife should have separate bank accounts, separate filings for their federal income taxes and neither on the other's deed for the homesteaded property.
Mack spokesman David James said that's the case here.
"They file separate returns, do not have joint accounts, and Connie's name is not on Mary's home in California and Mary's is not on Connie's home in Fort Myers," James said.
The state's Department of Revenue, which promulgates rules, wouldn't take a side.
"These cases hinge on the specific facts of the case, and thus there would need to be a factual and legal determination concerning whether a married individual can sustain the exemption in Florida in a given situation," said spokeswoman Renee Watters.
Wilkinson, known as the father of the state's Save Our Homes homestead tax cap, said he'll need to check everything out first. Without knowing of Sen. Nelson's agricultural-exemption case, Wilkinson compared the exemptions for homes and farms.
"It's like many things. It's not one thing. But in the end, it comes down to: See the cows, give the exemption," Wilkinson said. "In the case of a husband and wife, if they live separately and show they have separate finances, what am I supposed to do? Make it tougher for them to get married or stay married?"