DRACUT -- In the town where former Selectman George Malliaros called politics a "blood sport," election night nearly became fight night at the Sports Zone.
School Committee member Dan O'Connell said he has filed a formal complaint asking police to bring assault-and-battery charges against Bill McMahon, the longtime companion of Dracut Selectmen Chairwoman Cathy Richardson, as a result of a physical skirmish between O'Connell and McMahon during a party for School Committee member-elect Betsy Lynn Murphy at the sports-themed bar at 1734 Lakeview Ave. Tuesday night.
"(McMahon) initiated the episode," O'Connell wrote in a text message to The Sun. "He was intoxicated and took a swing at me. I pushed him back to defend myself...
Several witnesses interviewed by The Sun said as a result of physical contact with O'Connell, McMahon toppled down the steps located inside the bar's main entrance, but was back on his feet moments later.
Due to the potential for legal action, McMahon declined The Sun's offer to tell his side of the story, according to Richardson.
Dracut Deputy Police Chief David Chartrand said the department's dispatcher received a call from someone at the Sports Zone about 10:47 p.m. Tuesday.
"The caller reported a disturbance, some sort of altercation," Chartrand said. "Our officers responded and began an investigation which is still continuing at this time. We're gathering witness statements, tying to sort through and figure out what really occurred."
No determination can be made on whether criminal charges are warranted until after the investigation is completed, Chartrand said.
A number of well-known Dracut politicians and residents had gathered at the bar after results were announced to celebrate the victory of first-time candidate Murphy, who topped the ticket in the School Committee race with 3,100 votes. Possible witnesses to the altercation between O'Connell and McMahon who were present included: Murphy; and fellow School Committee members Joe Wilkie and Michael McNamara; former School Committee member Mary Gail Martin; state Rep. Colleen Garry; resident activist Rich Cowan, who edits the Dracut Action for Education blog on Facebook; and Richardson.
At the time McMahon entered the bar with Richardson, O'Connell was engaged in a three-way conversation with Wilkie and Garry, witnesses Cowan and Martin said. While Richardson made her way around the gathering, shaking hands and hugging many patrons, and offering congratulations to Murphy and McNamara, McMahon was communicating with O'Connell in an unfriendly manner, Martin and Cowan said.
"What I saw was that Mr. McMahon was there not very long before he approached the three people speaking (O'Connell, Wilkie and Garry) and made a comment that, clearly, by the looks on their faces, wasn't a nice comment," said Martin.
From there, McMahon, who O'Connell, Martin and Cowan said appeared to be highly intoxicated, distanced himself from O'Connell in the bar, with both men maintaining eye contact in a hostile manner, according to Martin.
Cowan said he took note of the hostility between the two men, and made a failed attempt to intercede when McMahon neared O'Connell a second time minutes later while making his way, unsteadily, toward the exit.
"What happened was (McMahon) made a gesture on his way out of the building, then (O'Connell) walked toward him and did not ignore it but called (McMahon) out on his gesture," said Cowan. "The person who was called out on their gesture (McMahon) took a swing."
Martin and Cowan said O'Connell raised a hand in response, sending McMahon tumbling down the front steps.
"Bill did seem to be pretty intoxicated when he came in, and had he not been I don't think he would have fallen down the stairs," said Martin.
When asked if McMahon's punch landed anywhere on his person, O'Connell responded by text, "No comment."
Though O'Connell publicly expressed his disappointment in a Facebook post Tuesday night that Richardson won re-election to the Board of Selectmen, O'Connell stated he believed McMahon's animosity toward him originated during the recent joint meetings between the School Committee and selectmen in which O'Connell's proposed $2.9 million override of Proposition 2 1/2 became a source of division between the two boards.
"(McMahon) was less than cordial at those meetings," O'Connell stated in a text.
Wilkie did not return a call seeking comment.
Garry also filed an eyewitness report for police on the incident, but declined to comment.
"I may be called as a witness. Therefore, I hope you understand, I don't feel it's appropriate to discuss it while the complaint is pending," Garry texted The Sun on Thursday.
Garry, who prevailed in an often bitter general-election battle with Richardson to retain her 36th Middlesex District seat in November, also declined to confirm a Sports Zone patron's report that Garry made the 911 call to police on Tuesday.
Martin, a former 24-year Dracut resident who served on the School Committee for almost two years before moving to Tyngsboro in 2009 said McMahon has gained a reputation in town as someone who has had run-ins with Richardson's political foes before.
"Mr. McMahon did start some stuff up with somebody a couple of elections ago at the polls, so I guess people are frustrated with getting bullied by him," said Martin. "He's pushed people past their limits, and I can't blame them (for filing a police report)."
Cowan and Martin each expressed regret that the Sports Zone altercation may have marred Murphy's big night, and an otherwise civilly contested town election.
"It was sad to see that people are so upset and feel so threatened by each other on a personal level in the midst of an important debate that needs to happen," said Cowan. "That debate being, what level of funding do the kids of Dracut deserve to provide them a proper education?"
Follow John Collins on Twitter at johncolowellsun.