Politics & Policy

LeMieux Rises in Florida

In the Florida primary, Connie Mack has a real challenger.

When Connie Mack declared that he would run for one of Florida’s Senate seats last November, he sprinted out to an early lead in the GOP primary against (what seemed like) four guys named Joe. Time flies. Connie Mack now finds himself locked in a tightening race against a guy named George LeMieux.

Mack brings impressive assets to the campaign. Thanks to his father of the same legal name, Cornelius McGillicuddy, Mack inherits a strong brand in state politics (he and his father are direct descendants of the longtime baseball player and manager of the same name). He projects an attractive media presence, and he sports a 30-point lead in the polls, which lends his candidacy a tinge of inevitability. But he has not prospered in the role of front-runner. With nothing but time on their hands before the August primary, reporters and inquisitive partisans have begun to pick through Mack’s record, and some of it, as they say here in north Florida, ain’t purdy.

#ad#First, there’s the home life. In 2005, Mack, then married with two children, went to Congress. By 2007 he had divorced his wife and married his House colleague Mary Bono, the widow of the unforgettable pop singer and easily forgettable congressman Sonny Bono. The romantic tale of Connie and Mary has several versions, none of them reflecting well on a champion of family values. Mack may have some “’splainin’” to do.

Then there’s the nightlife. According to police reports, Mack has been active after hours — drinking bouts, scrapes with fellow motorists, altercations of a non-senatorial sort, including a now-legendary 1992 bar fight at Calico Jack’s in Atlanta. Give Mack his due. He wasn’t beating up on some balding accountant from Gainesville. According to court documents, Mack duked it out with Ron Gant, the power-hitting left fielder for the Atlanta Braves. Witnesses say that it was Mack who threw the first punch, lending credibility to the disputed testimony of a waitress who said that Mack had been “drinking beer and Jägermeister shots all night.” As a taproom observer of long experience, I side with the waitress. Nobody in his right mind would take a swing at the imposing Mr. Gant. (For those of you keeping score at home, Gant made short work of Mack, breaking his ankle and subduing him in a headlock. There is no shame in that for Mack, but he then lost face with barroom brawlers everywhere by “grabbing the ballplayer’s crotch.”)

And finally, the work life. When he was not all that young and irresponsible, Mack took the scenic, John Belushi route through college — seven-plus years to a B.S. degree from the University of Florida. As for professional work in the private sector, about which Mack speaks with such fervor and apparent authority? His critics say there’s only one recorded instance of Mack holding a non-government job, and that was his tenure as an “event planner” for Hooters. Mack, perhaps prudently, has declined to provide details. Well, how about vineyard labor for the grand old party that has handed him one job after another? If there’s a media opportunity, it is assumed Mack is there: He practically Velcroed himself to Mitt Romney along the campaign trail this winter. But party gatherings, county dinners, Lincoln Day events? Not so much, say GOP officials. When constituents demand that he spend more time back in the district, they’re careful to specify that they mean his, not his wife’s, which is 3,000 miles away in Palm Springs.

Mack’s overall record, in a comparison that is both grossly unfair and reverberatingly memorable, has been summed up by George LeMieux this way: Connie Mack is the “Charlie Sheen of Florida politics.”

#page#Which brings us to the other relevant party. The first thing that must be said about George LeMieux is that he bears upon his brow the demonic mark of Charlie Crist. LeMieux ran Crist’s campaign for governor, served as his chief of staff, and then, as an interim appointee, warmed a U.S. Senate seat until the governor could claim it later for himself. Across Florida, and with full justification, George LeMieux has been known as Charlie Crist’s man. For many Republicans, that mark cannot be washed away. Heck, for some Republicans, that mark cannot be sandpapered away; it’ll be there forever, like a big ol’ Gorbachev splotch. But, as there always are in the imperfect world of politics, there are circumstances here, some of them extenuating, some of them possibly even redeeming.

It should be remembered, first of all, that Crist’s run for governor enjoyed the full support of Governor Jeb Bush, the grandees of the business establishment, the lords and ladies of the gated communities, the stalwarts of the conservative network, and the large majority of GOP precinct workers. Republicans could not have been more unified in their enthusiasm for good-time Charlie Crist. It should also be remembered that when Crist began to come apart at the seams — when he first bolted the governor’s mansion to run for the Senate, then blew an apparently unblowable primary lead over Marco Rubio, and then stumbled out of the GOP to run fecklessly as an independent . . . well, by that time “the Anti-Crist” was on his own, LeMieux having decamped to Washington to assume his seat-warming duties. LeMieux, to put it another way, was for Crist when Crist was cool. The minute Crist went looney-independent, LeMieux endorsed Rubio. Finally, it should be remembered that during his 16 months in Washington, LeMieux left a clear impression as a thoughtful and diligent conservative, recording full-throated votes against Dodd-Frank, card check, Obamacare, and the like. His audition for the full-term job, by many informed accounts, went well.

#ad#There are three other things to be said about LeMieux. First, he’s smart. I don’t mean that he’s just soundbite-retentive, with two-sentence glibness cued up for every conceivable question. I mean that, to borrow John O’Hara’s timeless distinction, LeMieux is as much doer as describer. He’s managed big-time campaigns; he co-ran a state government; he helped build a law firm with 175 lawyers. He knows how to make things work.

The second thing you notice about George LeMieux is that he’s verbally disciplined; he rarely uses 300 words when one will do. This economy of expression is an underrated political skill. Reagan was the gold standard. He would deliver a trimmed answer and then stare benignly at his interviewer, showing no inclination whatsoever to fill the lengthening silence. Contrast Reagan with Rick Santorum, who is habitually discursive, with whatever topic is at hand reminding him of an even more politically hazardous area into which he insists on tugging the conversation. Or Newt Gingrich. It would be difficult to think of a question to which Newt could not respond in utter sincerity, “I’m glad you asked me that question.” Romney is the most disciplined of the group, but he can get into trouble when he wanders off into Rich Guy Land, that mythical space where guys make five-figure bets and gals own multiple luxury automobiles. When I ask LeMieux if he regrets the Charlie Sheen jape, he pauses thoughtfully and replies, “No.”

The third thing to know about LeMieux is that he’s tough. He may look like a balding accountant from Gainesville, but he’s got the hide of a Nauga. One story of many about LeMieux from Tallahassee lore: When Crist was ready to fill the Senate vacancy, he charged LeMieux with vetting the names on the short list — Smith, Jones, Brown, and LeMieux, all citizens of high and unblemished repute. By the end of the process, fatal flaws had been detected in first Smith, then Jones, and then Brown until, as if by divine inscription, only a single name remained on the list — that of George LeMieux. Is this story true? For the record, LeMieux denies all of it flatly, but I note that political types on both sides of the aisle believe it to be so. To them, it sounds true, very LeMieux-like.

At this stage of the campaign, Connie Mack has the polls and the name and — a factor never to be discounted — the looks of a guy who wins the girl in the last reel of the film. It also should be recorded that Mack partisans swear he has left his bad-boy days behind. But this is Florida, a state full of Rubio-lovers and Crist-haters, meliorist Romneyites and hard-shell conservatives, BS-detecting women and bottom-line business people. The GOP voters will ask all the tough questions, but they will settle ultimately on this one: Which of the two candidates is more likely to end the charmed political life of no-account, two-term incumbent Bill Nelson?

— Neal B. Freeman is a longtime contributor to NR.

Neal B. Freeman is a former editor and columnist for National Review and the founding producer of Firing Line.

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