He's got political consultants. He's conversant on a range of current issues. He offers a compelling personal story of triumphing over adversity.
But Jameel McCline isn't anything like an ordinary congressional candidate.
• When the man he's challenging — veteran U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings — was first elected to Congress in 1992, McCline was serving a five-year prison sentence in two of New York's toughest maximum-security prisons, Attica and Sing Sing. He said he had stolen firearms in a stolen car.
• He's a former heavyweight boxing champion who went by the name "Big Time" McCline. During a career that ran from 2005 to 2012, he had a 35-win streak and fought around the world. "I was one of the baddest men on the planet from 2001 to 2007," he says.
• McCline has never sought office before and he's rarely voted. Election records show that since registering to vote in Florida in 2006, he's voted just once, in the March 2014 Delray Beach city election. He didn't vote in four major elections for Congress, governor and president. He said not voting "doesn't mean I don't have a full grasp of the issues."
Still, he thinks he can deliver a knockout blow to Hastings in the Democratic primary, despite the incumbent's roots in South Florida.
"I have a story of redemption. This is one of the reasons why I'm running. Not only to inspire others in my district but also across America. Even though I was a kid of abandonment and [went to prison] ... But you can still rebuild. This is only possible in a great country like America. So 'thank you, America' is my message," he said.
The 20th Congressional District includes parts of Deerfield Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Lauderhill, Pompano Beach, Tamarac and parts of Palm Beach and Hendry counties.
McCline said he plans to pump $150,000 of his own money into the race, which he estimated would cost a total of $500,000 to $600,000. It's unclear where he'll get the money. He filed for bankruptcy in December 2013 listing assets of $4,500 and liabilities of $485,000.
His bankruptcy filing shows he owed $58,000 to the Internal Revenue Service, but McCline said he did not know if that amount is correct. "I have accountants that go through everything for me. I'm not sure what's what. I just try to follow instructions."
Hastings, of Miramar, had $321,495 in campaign cash as of March 31, according to Federal Election Commission filings. McCline, of Delray Beach, didn't announce his candidacy until after the end of the reporting period. The third candidate, Port of Palm Beach Commissioner Jean Enright, of Riviera Beach, had $16,487 in the bank at the end of the first quarter.
Hastings was a pioneering civil rights lawyer for decades before he became a federal judge — a job he lost through impeachment after Congress concluded he lied at his bribery trial though he was acquitted of criminal charges.
He's been endorsed for re-election by all of Florida's congressional Democrats — including U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. Almost 70 percent of the district's voters live in Hastings's Broward base.
"Alcee is very popular and very strong," said Mark Alan Siegel, former chairman of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party. "I don't see anyone having the stature to beat him." Florida Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said the contest "won't even be close. [Hastings] is immensely popular in this district."
McCline, 44, said he entered foster care at age 7, and finished high school and became an adult was "completely on my own … and ended up back on the streets."
He's said he currently owns a training facility for pro athletes and works as a consultant acting "as a concierge between professional athletes and ways for them to stay fit, strong, ready to perform at an optimum level."
His views are generally in line with Democratic orthodoxy on issues such as Obamacare (support), Republican hearings on attack on American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya (oppose), medical marijuana (support) and same sex-marriage (support). He said he's not reflexively party line, however. He said the controversial practice of extracting natural gas known as fracking is OK if it can be made environmentally safer and takes place in remote locations, which he said do not include the Everglades.
McCline said he's always been a Democrat, but election records showed he was registered as a no party affiliation/independent candidate until August 2012. In New York, felons are automatically eligible to vote when they complete their sentences, so he's legally allowed to vote in Florida, said Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher.
McCline said his past mistakes — including a driving record that includes charges of driving with a suspended license, driving with a suspended license, not having insurance, and failure to pay tolls — makes him more relatable to the electorate.
"Yeah, the driving record's atrocious…. Definitely I have been bankrupted. Yes, I have had a car repossessed. These are all issues that the everyday person goes through within my district," he said. "Because of that I'm much more of a representative of my district than Alcee Hastings is, to be honest with you. I've been through all these things and I've made my way out of it."
The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican Jay Bonner of Palm Beach Gardens. The 20th Congressional District is 67 percent Democratic, 20 percent independent/no party/third party, and 13 percent Republican, and independent ratings list is as safely Democratic.
Bonner has something in common with McClain, Hastings and Enright. Members of Congress aren't legally required to live in the districts they represent – and none of the four candidates lives in the 20th District.
Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.
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