The thin line between policy, politics

BRIDGEPORT – It was a Congressional event, one of more than 17 in 17 days that freshman U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, scheduled for the congressional recess. But the distance between policy and politics was as brief as his introduction Thursday.

“Please give your applause, and if I can say, your vote, to Congressman Jim Himes,” said Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, the top official in a city crucial to Himes’ re-election. “He bleeds Bridgeport.”

Illustrating the powers of incumbency, Himes was the central player at an event to announce a grant and promote a federal program intended to stabilize neighborhoods threatened by foreclosure, as well as Himes’ efforts on behalf of the district’s largest city.


U.S Rep. Jim Himes and Mayor Bill Finch. (Uma Ramiah)

On a day when a well-respected analyst slightly downgraded his re-election chances, Himes stood in front of a home rescued from abandonment and resold under a federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program.

He was joined by Finch and other officials, including Richard Walega, the New England administrator of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In one afternoon, Himes was able to illustrate his connection to local and state leaders, his investment in Bridgeport neighborhoods, and what he called the positive aspects of the economic stimulus promoted by President Obama and a Democratic Congress.

“People ask, ‘What was the stimulus and what did it do?’ ” Himes said. “People need to understand that this is how we get out of this mess, one family at a time, one house at a time.”

The Bridgeport grant, totaling more than $1.2 million, is part of a third round of funding through the stabilization program.

Himes was targeted for defeat from the moment he unseated Chris Shays, the only Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New England, in 2008. His opponent this year is Dan Debicella, a Republican state senator from Shelton.

On Thursday, the Cook Political Report moved the Himes-Debicella race from “Likely Democratic” to “Lean Democratic,” a more competitive designation.

Two years ago, riding on a wave of Obama support, Himes beat Shays by 21,000 votes in Bridgeport–a crucial tally considering his district-wide margin was 11,621. To win re-election, Himes needs to mobilize Democrats in Bridgeport again, and part of that effort is selling voters on the value of the stimulus.

The grant announced Thursday is meant to provide local and state governments with the resources to deal with foreclosures and urban decay. According to HUD, local officials can use the money to acquire, rehabilitate or demolish foreclosed properties.

“They say the stimulus is unpopular. Well, this is the stimulus,” Finch said, pointing to the rehabilitated home as an example of the success of federal investment in the city.

City Council member Michelle Lyons said that foreclosures in any area depreciate the value of surrounding homes.

“So having HUD and Congressman Himes come in and give families an opportunity to occupy these homes, it does help the neighborhood by increasing values all around,” she said. “And it keeps the neighborhood stable and safe.”

Himes, who used to work for a non-profit developer of urban housing, said he brings knowledge and commitment.

“But the next two years are critically different if Dan Debicella is elected,” Himes said. “I have a solid background in urban development, but Dan isn’t interested in investing in urban areas.”

Ashley Maagero, a spokesman for Debicella, said the government’s recent record on foreclosures in Bridgeport is dismal.

“On Jim Himes’ watch, Bridgeport foreclosures have soared, outranking every other city in Connecticut. Regardless of what Jim Himes says about the effectiveness of the stimulus package in Fairfield County, the reality is: it’s not working, and it certainly isn’t lowering foreclosure rates,” Maagero said.  “Connecticut just can’t afford Jim Himes any longer.”

Himes wraps up a tour of all 17 towns in his district in 17 days this week, the end of the August recess.