From Convict to Congress? On the Campaign Trail with Former Boxer Jameel McCline

Tim SmithSpecial to Bleacher ReportAugust 18, 2014

Scott Fisher

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Jameel McCline had just finished brunch. He stepped out of a restaurant on Ocean Avenue and was stopped by the restaurant's owner on the sidewalk. At 6'7", 260 pounds and with a shaved head that glistens in the afternoon sun, McCline is imposing. But his amicable nature makes him approachable.

"You're Jameel McCline? I've been trying to get in touch with you," the man said. "You have a guy working on your campaign who is a right-wing nut and a racist. I've known him for years. He's a Republican. I wasn't going to vote for you because of him. You need to get rid of him. And don't let him make any more phone calls on your behalf."

McCline was caught off guard. He acknowledged the person did indeed work with his campaign and said he would check out the racist angle.

Welcome to another "Uh-oh!" moment in the Jameel McCline campaign for U.S. Congress in Florida's 20th District—a predominantly Democrat and black district where poverty and unemployment are rampant.

This is the very same Jameel McCline who, during a pro boxing career that started in the mid-1990s and ended in 2012, fought for all four of the major heavyweight championships—and lost each time. He stood in against a hard-punching giant—7'0", 300-pound Russian champion Nikolay Valuev—for the WBA title. He stepped up to 6'7", 240-pound Wladimir Klitschko, the current WBO, IBF and WBA champion. He even fought one of his best friends, Chris Byrd.

But facing off against 77-year-old, bald-headed, gray-bearded, well-entrenched Democrat incumbent Alcee Hastings in a primary race might be the toughest fight of his life. And McCline, 44, hasn't made it any easier since announcing his improbable congressional campaign in April.

He fired all but one of the people who started with his campaign, retaining a woman with no political experience as his campaign director.

One of his campaign workers was arrested and charged with burglary and criminal mischief after she broke into the home she once shared with her estranged husband and doused his clothes with beer in the driveway. She resigned from the campaign.

McCline flubbed a speech in front of 300 influential voters, embarrassing himself and his campaign. "I froze. I drew a blank. It wasn't good," he said.

And McCline had to return $35,800 to his girlfriend after he was informed that her $41,000 loan to his campaign exceeded federal limits. He could only keep $5,200.

"There have been some horrible pitfalls and some great times and great moments," McCline said.

Scott Fisher / Special to Bleacher Report

McCline is hoping one of those great moments will be unseating Hastings, who has held a seat in Congress since 1993. Hastings typically runs unopposed in the Democratic primary, but he is facing McCline, along with one other candidate, Jean Enright, this time.

The primary will be held on Aug. 26. The winner of the Democratic primary is a virtual lock to win the general election, because the majority of the voters in the district are Democrats. Hastings won the last general election with 87.9 percent of the vote in 2012.

"Before I decided to run, I spoke to a colleague, and he told me that Hastings was well-entrenched and that it would be very, very hard to beat him," McCline said. "But he said it wasn't impossible."

With no experience in public office or running a political campaign and little-to-no name recognition among the voters in the district, McCline is a long shot to defeat Hastings. In boxing parlance he has a puncher's chance.

Road to Redemption

The more you follow McCline on the campaign trail, the more you realize that he's driven by the thrill of the chase—the same motivation that propelled him to the four world championship matches. But being the Buffalo Bills of heavyweight boxing still eats at him.

"I had Samuel Peter down, and I had Chris Byrd down. But I couldn't finish them," he said. "I think it might have had something to do with the fact that I didn't have an amateur career. I didn't start boxing until I was 25. I think kids learn that killer instinct in the amateurs. When you have a guy hurt, you finish him. I didn't have that killer instinct.

"But when I make it to Congress, that will make up for those four losses that I had in those world championship matches. I'll look at that as some kind of redemption."

Just like his nascent political career, McCline became a pro boxer without any of the prerequisites. He had no amateur career. For the first few fights, he got by on size, instincts, athleticism and a sledgehammer right hand. He was 2-2-1 in his first five fights. Then things clicked, and he won his next 18 fights with 12 by knockout. He retired in 2012 with a record of 41-13-5 with 24 knockouts.

Mike Borao first saw McCline working as a bouncer at a strip club in New York City. Borao said McCline knocked out an unruly patron so quickly that no one saw the punch that decked the guy. Borao was sold. They became friends, and later Borao, who is a lawyer, became McCline's co-manager—along with Allan Wartski, a hotel and restaurant owner in New York.

Borao calls McCline "an overachieving underachiever" as a boxer.

"He put on his first pair of gloves at 25. If he had started as a kid like Roy Jones or Oscar De La Hoya, he'd have been one of the greatest heavyweight champions ever," Borao said. "To start so late and fight for a world championship four times is unheard of. It was a career that he willed. He totally overachieved. People say he underachieved because he didn't win a world title. Those two things—the late start and not winning a world championship—framed his career."

Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

Borao believes McCline can be an effective legislator because he'll use the same skills in Congress that made him successful in boxing.

"Whatever it is, he'll learn. He'll put the right people around him," Borao said. "Do I think Jameel can delegate and make his own decisions with people giving him all the information? Yes. If he wins this thing, he's going to do a fantastic job. The same dedication he brought to boxing and to this campaign, he'll bring to governing."

Not everyone is as confident in McCline as a politician. Don King, the famed boxing promoter, lives in West Boca Raton—just outside of McCline's district. He promoted McCline's matches near the end of his career. King wouldn't vote for McCline even if he could.

"I love Jameel. I have no problem with him," King said. "He's a Democrat, but he's got a Republican advertising agent working for him, which I don't understand. I think he's being used by someone. I'm an Alcee Hastings man. I support him. If Jameel were running against anyone else, he'd have my total support."

Mitch Ceasar, Broward County Democratic Party Chairman, let out a long and hearty laugh when asked if any Florida political insiders were taking McCline's candidacy seriously.

"He's running against an incumbent who is revered in his district and is somewhat of an icon in South Florida. Because of that, it's going to be very difficult for him to win," Ceasar said.

Ceasar said the Democratic Party is hands off for the primary. But Hastings is an insider's insider in the party.

Whether Hastings is taking McCline as a serious challenge is questionable. Hastings is harder to reach than Wladimir Klitschko's chin. Evan Polisar, Hastings' press secretary, did not return a message about setting up an interview with Hastings.

The Right to Bear Arms

"I was asked at a forum once: Have you ever held office before?" McCline said. "What makes you think you can just come into such an important race and hold office?

"I said this is how God made me."

McCline never considered a local or state political office. He related it to starting his boxing career without having fought in the amateurs.

McCline's life has been one uphill slog after another—some of them brought on by chance and circumstance and others self-induced.

On the campaign trail, he runs through his past like a job candidate going over his resume for a potential employer. Raised in Harlem until he was seven, when his mother—struggling in poverty with six kids—turned him over to foster care. Bounced around in the system until he aged out at 18. Spent a year-and-a-half in college before being arrested for running illegal guns. Convicted and spent five years in various prisons in New York. Became a professional boxer with no amateur career.

That kind of past, particularly the conviction on gun running, would weigh down most political candidates like an anchor. But McCline said it makes him relatable.

"I've heard from people who have had family members in trouble. I've also heard from people who say that I'm honest," he said. "I don't just know the issues. I've lived the issues. The least, the lost and the left out for many years and recently that was me."

McCline, the former gun runner, believes in the right to bear arms.

Scott Fisher / Special to Bleacher Report

"I'm not really into gun control," he said. "I believe people should have guns. I believe in responsible gun ownership. Ex-felons should have the right to bear arms."

What's in a Name?

There are only two light bulbs shining from the ceiling of the conference room inside a beige two-story building in a cluster of beige two-story buildings in a Deerfield Beach office complex where one of McCline's campaign headquarters is located. No one seems to know where the light switches are that can turn on the rest of the lights.

It's emblematic of McCline's campaign. They're still searching for the switch that can kick it into high gear.

The dim room doesn't stop the three teenagers sitting around the table from making calls to drum up support for McCline. They're volunteering because they believe it will look good on their college admission applications.

Trine Andersen, McCline's neophyte campaign director, is imploring the teens to be more energetic when talking to potential voters. Andersen is the McCline campaign dynamo and constantly by his side on the campaign trail. What she lacks in experience she makes up for in enthusiasm.

Scott Fisher / Special to Bleacher Report

She joined McCline's campaign as an event planner. She is a financial planner specializing in helping women start their own businesses. Andersen received a battlefield promotion when McCline fired his first staff. She's been on the job for six weeks.

"The learning curve is like this," Andersen said, making a vertical line with her right hand. "There is so much that I don't know, but we're learning."

Andersen is from Sweden. She has been in the U.S. for 15 years and has been in Florida for the last five years. She doesn't have a complete grasp of Florida politics. But she knows what it will take for McCline to win.

"This campaign will be won on Jameel's name recognition," she said. "Of the people that we've talked to, about 20-30 percent are for Alcee Hastings. But when we connect with people, about 80 percent are looking for an alternative. We just need to get Jameel's name out there."

John Tracey, the field director for the campaign, said they had knocked on 900 doors throughout the district, with McCline personally knocking on 500 doors, and they were revving up their robo-calling. It is a big district, which includes parts of Hendry, Broward and Palm Beach Counties. About two-thirds of the voters are in Fort Lauderdale. McCline admits he should have started a year ago if he wanted to get enough name recognition to level the playing field against Hastings.

What Have You Done for Me Lately?

There is an undercurrent of voter dissatisfaction with Hastings, who was impeached by the U.S. Senate and removed from the bench as a federal judge in 1989. He was implicated in a bribery case for allegedly accepting $150,000 to reduce the sentences of two convicted racketeers who had come before him in 1981. He was acquitted of the charges at trial when his co-conspirator refused to testify against him.

McCline made a stop at a Fox affiliate in West Palm Beach to tape an interview with a sports reporter and got an earful about Hastings from Perri Demps, who works at the TV station.

Scott Fisher / Special to Bleacher Report

"Each time Alcee Hastings comes up for election, I vote for him because there's no one else. He's been around for a long time," Demps said. "But what has he done for us lately? He doesn't go into the communities and listen to the people. People know Alcee Hastings by name only."

After hearing a brief spiel from McCline about bringing more jobs to the district, Demps said she will vote for him and get the word out to her family and friends. McCline was energized.

Sign of the Times

Later in the day, McCline stopped by a town meeting at a recreation center in Fort Lauderdale near his other headquarters. A block away from the center stood a billboard with Hastings, arms outstretched, staring down at the people on the sidewalks and the cars zooming by on Sistrunk Avenue. Hastings looked paternal and authoritative.

At McCline's headquarters, which is sandwiched between a thrift store and a beauty salon, someone had thrown the 8-by-5-foot poster that normally hangs on the front wall of his headquarters to the ground in the parking lot. Two of McCline's campaign workers arrived and nailed it back to the wall before McCline arrived at the office. McCline said that many of his yard signs have been uprooted and thrown to the ground. He takes that as a sign that Hastings is feeling the heat.

McCline expected to speak to the voters who showed up at the forum but was told that only the circuit judge candidates would be allowed to address the group. Before it started, McCline mingled with the crowd, handing out leaflets and cards and listening to their concerns.

There was some skepticism about McCline as he worked the room, shaking hands and introducing himself.

Johnnie Scott works with a community action group called Pride of Parkway. He said Hastings helped his mother get treatment for her medical problems before she died. He considers Hastings a personal friend.

"We have to see what McCline has to offer the community," Scott said.

Earl Bacon from the same organization isn't sold on Hastings.

"The old candidates who have been in office for a long time, they get comfortable with their position and they stop helping people," Bacon said. "The young people running for office, they have to prove themselves, so they're likely to work harder and do more stuff in the community to establish themselves.

"I have to see what you're going to do before I support you. I wouldn't be surprised if he (McCline) could beat Hastings."

It's a glimmer of hope—the kind that McCline has clung to all his life.

It's a Hard Knock Life

McCline was seven years old when his mother gave him to the state of New York because she couldn't afford to feed all six of her children. She kept his twin sister and his other brothers and sisters. He likes to think she believed he had a better chance in foster care than he did with her in Harlem. Seven years later, she turned over his twin sister to the state.

McCline started out at Little Flower Children Services, an orphanage in Wading River, Long Island. Between the ages of seven and 11, McCline bounced back and forth between the orphanage and foster homes. None of the foster homes took him in permanently. At age 11 he was placed in a group home in Port Jefferson, Long Island, where he stayed until he was 18 years old.

The emotional scars are deep.

"It's probably why I care for people so much, because I was kicked to the side so much," he said. "When you're moved around from place to place and town to town at a young age and separated from your family at a young age, it messes with you.

"A lot of us in the orphanage ended up in prison. There are about 12-13 of us that talk on Facebook. There's only about three or four of us that are doing well. Others of us are struggling."

Scott Fisher / Special to Bleacher Report

McCline's stint in prison probably saved his life. When you're dealing drugs and running guns, the long-term career paths lead to two places: prison or the cemetery. He was 19 years old and a sophomore at the New York Institute of Technology. He was working on an undeclared major in the classroom and a graduate degree in crime on the streets.

The police nabbed McCline on the Long Island Expressway en route to delivering 49 Desert Eagle handguns to a buyer on Long Island in 1989. He had two guns in his waistband. He pleaded guilty and received a sentence of three to six years and ended up doing five years, making stops at Riker's Island, Attica and Sing Sing before landing at Comstock, where he served the bulk of his sentence.

"Comstock is a turn of the (20th) century prison—all dank and dark and cold," McCline said. "We called it the Land of the Living Dead. It was horrible. My mindset was to never go back. When I was inside I would say things like I'd rather be homeless, living on the street than be here. I could go where I wanted to go, do what I wanted to do. That's what that was like."

Other side of the law

The three ministers sitting around the table for lunch at the Sailfish Marina restaurant on Singer Island were sizing up McCline, trying to figure out if he was a better choice than Hastings. McCline has nailed the amicable politician part. He told them what they wanted to hear—that he will work hard to bring federal funding for jobs and infrastructure improvements to their communities in Riviera Beach.

Someone brought up Hastings' impeachment and removal from the federal bench in 1989. McCline used it to make a comparison.

"In 1989, we were both on the other side of the law," he said. "The only difference is I was an 18-year-old homeless street kid and he was a judge entrusted with the public's confidence."

Once they were satisfied, they swung into action to make sure that McCline would get time to speak to their congregations at Sunday services.

Dan Calloway, the pastor at Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church, got on the phone immediately and began lining up times and places for McCline to speak.

"We've got to let the people know that there's a new boy in town, and I'll tell them to support you," Calloway said. "No indictment against Alcee Hastings, but his time is over. You shouldn't be in office when you're almost 80 years old."

McCline has briefly met Hastings twice at public forums.

"As a person, from what I understand, he's a nice man," McCline said. "He's just been there too long. He's a part of that old guard, and for some reason that just turns me off."

Pay the Cost to Be the Boss

McCline is financing his primary run. He said fundraising was futile, because no big donors believe he has a chance against Hastings. He is getting some small donations, but he has already sunk $150,000 of his own money into the campaign and thinks he'll have to spend another $40,000 before the primary.

That's a hefty sum for a man who filed for bankruptcy in December. He said it was done to reorganize his finances, but he has several companies under Big Time Holdings that are solvent.

"I own a gym in Boca Raton. It's a destination gym. We train professional athletes," he said. "I'm involved in a rehab center. I'm involved in a sports consulting company. I work with athletes on career longevity, career sustainability, injury prevention, injury rehabilitation, specializing in stem cell consulting. I make more money now than I did when I was boxing. I'm very proud that."

He is equally proud of his recovery from an addiction to painkillers that landed him in rehab in Delray Beach three years ago. He said the addiction dropped him into a dark hole financially, physically and mentally. He has climbed out and now believes that a successful run for Congress can complete his comeback.

"I sabotaged my own life for so long," McCline said. "Now that I'm getting out of my own way things are getting better and better for me. I have this weird feeling that this is going to work out. I believe I'm going to win."

Timothy Smith is a former sportswriter for The New York Times and the New York Daily News. He is currently a freelance writer based in New Jersey.


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