Bridgeport — In the state’s largest and poorest city, where memories are long and the politics personal, it is wishful thinking when state Rep. Andres Ayala Jr. says his struggle for a state Senate seat is strictly about the future, not present or past.
The incumbent is Edwin A. Gomes, 76, the survivor of a heart attack and triple bypass, who is surly at the thought that the 43-year-old Ayala, a friend and colleague, is trying to retire him with the backing of an old enemy, Mayor Bill Finch.
If Ayala is the future and Gomes the present, the city’s colorful and distressing past also is in the race in the person of former Sen. Ernest Newton II, who resigned the seat in 2005 after his conviction for taking a $5,000 bribe.
Home from 4½ years in prison and a halfway house, the 56-year-old Newton is seeking redemption from the voters of the 23rd Senate District, which covers the eastern two-thirds of Bridgeport and a small piece of neighboring Stratford.
“I know the 23rd District is made up of a forgiving people,” Newton said Tuesday night, standing outside United Congregational Church before what turned out to be a raucous debate in the church basement.
Exactly how forgiving they are will become clear on Aug. 14, the day of a Democratic primary that is tantamount to election in heavily Democratic Bridgeport.
Pride, ambition and resentment flow through the contest, beginning with Gomes, a plainspoken retired union leader, who won the seat in a special election in 2005, backed by progressives happy to see Newton gone.
In another city, a mayor or Democratic chairman might have brokered a deal between Gomes and Ayala, erstwhile allies in common cause: Neither wants to see Bridgeport represented by a felon.
But it never happened. No one started a conversation that might have persuaded Gomes to step down or Ayala to wait two years, then try to become Connecticut’s first Latino state senator with Gomes’ support.
If Ayala assumed his entrance in the race would coax Gomes into retirement, he miscalculated. Gomes says he has heard the whispers: “He’s old. He’s sick. He can’t do the job.”
On stage the other night, Gomes pronounced himself in good health. After his triple bypass last fall, he missed only nine votes in the 2012 session. If there were any doubters, he said, “Try me.”
Sitting between Newton and Ayala, Gomes said that Newton deserves a second chance at a new life, but not in the public office he betrayed for personal gain. He likened Newton’s run to an embezzler seeking his old job at the bank.
If elected, he said, Newton would be a pariah in Hartford.
“You have to have the respect of others in order to pass your bills or to work with them,” Gomes said. “And if you haven’t got that, you’re not going to go anywhere, and Bridgeport will suffer for that.”
The potential comeback of Newton went from a curiosity to a concern with the Democratic powers-that-be in Hartford on the night of May 21, when Newton unexpectedly finished first in balloting at the Democratic nominating convention.
Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr. of Brooklyn and Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney of New Haven were stunned. They quickly recruited Martin Dunleavy, a veteran political and union operative from New Haven, to take over Gomes’ campaign.
Dunleavy and Gomes are old friends. In 1980, they both worked for Ted Kennedy’s challenge of Jimmy Carter, though in the 2006 Senate primary, Dunleavy was with Joe Lieberman and Gomes was with Ned Lamont.
Williams and Looney were both at the opening of Gomes’ headquarters.
“We’re supporting Ed Gomes. He has been a good and valuable colleague, a hardworking senator with a long record as a labor leader,” Looney said. “He’s one of the true spokesmen for labor in our caucus and our party.”
Looney said neither he nor Williams was eager to talk about how they might respond to a Newton victory. Instead, Looney wryly quoted an old labor leader he once knew: “We’ll jump off that bridge when we come to it.”
Gomes looked physically uncomfortable Tuesday night, squeezed on his right by an opponent from his past and on his left by a friend impatient to move up the political ladder.
Ayala characterized Newton and Gomes as failures for bringing home insufficient state aid to Bridgeport. During Newton’s time, he said, the state invested $500 million in Adriaen’s Landing, a Hartford development touted by Gov. John Rowland.
“You know, Mr. Ayala, you keep talking about Adriaen’s Landing,” Newton said. “But in the four years you’re here … “
Ayalya interrupted, reminding him he has been in the legislature six years.
“… have you brought that kind of money back to Bridgeport?”
Gomes smiled as he took the microphone.
“Mr. Newton,” he asked, “what did you bring back when you were senator, besides a bad reputation?”
When Newton’s supports hissed and booed, Gomes smiled and said, “No brag, just fact.”
Newton tried to slap back at Gomes, saying he was happy to talk about his record.
“You know, Mr. Gomes has tried to make this campaign about my past. I’ve done more things in Hartford than Mr. Gomes has ever done since he’s been there.”
“Mr. Newton is right. He’s done things in Hartford that I didn’t do — that I wouldn’t want to do.”
Gomes also needled Ayala for distancing himself from Bass Pro, a company set to open a shop in Steel Point, after publicity about claims that Bass Pro had discriminated against local workers in other cities.
Smiling, he noted that Ayala was at a press conference singing Bass Pro’s praises.
“Now, he’s singing a softer sound,” Gomes said.
Even Ayala smiled.
Newton’s pitch is straightforward: He is worthy of redemption, and Bridgeport has worsened in his absence from public office.
“I was away for seven years, and you all were in office. And you still haven’t done nothing,” Newton said. “This election is about leadership and redemption. So I say to you today, just look at the record.”
Gomes suggested Newton was in no position to talk about his record.
“Seven years ago, if Senator Newton had done what he was supposed to do, I might never have got elected,” Gomes said.
The debate ended abruptly. After a series of interruptions by the audience, including insults directed at Ayala’s girlfriend by Newton’s sister, the moderator from the League of Women Voters used her discretion to end the debate after 90 minutes, not the available two hours.
“Let me thank you for trying to be a good audience,” Newton said, beginning his closing remarks. “I apologize for my sister. I am sorry.”
But Newton, who never lost his habit of referring to himself in the third person, not even after a stay in prison, offered himself as a symbol of renewal, of hope in a city that constantly struggles for hope and renewal.
“Folks say, ‘Ernie, you are a felon, you ought not run.’ But I proved them wrong, because if everybody who comes out of prison stands up and tries to put their best foot forward, we should put our arms around them.”