Bridgeport – It’s the question of Connecticut’s primary season: Can Joseph P. Ganim, a dozen years after his mayoralty here was unmasked as a racketeering conspiracy to shake down city contractors, regain the office he so memorably disgraced?
The verdict rendered by the New York Times on the day of Ganim’s 2003 conviction on 16 corruption counts seemed reasonable and final: “Mr. Ganim was convicted on such a broad array of charges that a political comeback is all but out of the question, political and legal experts said today.”
Ganim, now 55, divorced and disbarred, but free since 2010 after serving seven years of a nine-year sentence, shared the stage Wednesday night at a three-way Democratic mayoral debate with Bill Finch, a two-term incumbent, and Mary-Jane Foster.
“This election, it’s not about the past,” Ganim said in his closing remarks. “It’s not about my past. It’s not about Mary Jane’s past. It’s not about Bill’s past. It’s about the future.”
The campaign could be a new chapter in the history of the city written by Lennie Grimaldi, a writer and onetime political operative who worked for Ganim, later to plead guilty and do time as an admitted co-conspirator. His book and political blog each have the same wry title, “Only in Bridgeport.”
“I’ve never seen a choice like this in my life,” Finch said.
Covering the debate for his blog from the last row of the Holiday Inn ballroom, Grimaldi offered the unique perspective of a man with personal connections to all three candidates: He managed campaigns for Finch and Ganim and did publicity work for Foster, the co-founder of a minor-league baseball team, the Bridgeport Bluefish.
“It’s surreal,” Grimaldi said, looking up from his laptop. “In two words, it’s surreal – but fun.”
Foster, a vice president at the University of Bridgeport who lost a Democratic mayoral primary to Finch in 2011, has tried to position herself as the city’s only chance for a clean break from machine politics.
“I’m running because Bridgeport deserves better,” Foster said at the opening of the debate. At the close, she added, “I think it’s time we moved forward.”
She is backed by the city’s two Democratic state senators, Ed Gomes and Marilyn Moore, each of whom won their seats as anti-machine candidates with the help of grass-roots activists, including Tom Swan, the executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group. Swan also is helping Foster.
Ganim’s backers include the police union, some black ministers and former Sen. Ernie Newtown, who also did time in an unrelated corruption case.
Finch, a former state senator supported by every municipal union except the police, does not concede the clean-government mantle to Foster. He said he is responsible for the city’s momentum after Ganim.
“Trust is back in the city of Bridgeport. Investment is back in the city of Bridgeport,” Finch told the debate audience of more than 300. “We’re on the way back, Bridgeport. So strap on your seatbelt. Here we go.”
The city is Connecticut’s largest, an important generator of votes for Democratic statewide victories, including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s narrow wins in 2010 and 2014, milestones in the long-running tenure of the city’s old-school political boss, Mario Testa.
Malloy is officially neutral in the state’s other high-profile urban mayoral primary, a challenge of Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra by the governor’s former legal counsel, Luke A. Bronin. But he did not hesitate to back Finch over Ganim.
Testa, who was nowhere to be seen Wednesday night, has endorsed Ganim, the man he once imagined electing as governor. The closest he came was getting Ganim the nomination for lieutenant governor in 1994, when Republican John G. Rowland won the first of his three terms.
Finch was not entirely displeased to see Testa end up in Ganim’s camp on the eve of the Democratic Town Committee’s endorsement, which went to the incumbent.
“I think what it proves is there is an old guard, and they want in,” Finch said. “They don’t feel they are in.”
A pre-war industrial juggernaut, the city now teeters between poverty and potential. It has a bigger middle class than Hartford and a stronger home-ownership base, but it has suffered from the erosion of a once-storied industrial base. Taxes are high, and Finch has raised them four times, Foster said.
Forbes magazine included Bridgeport on a 2011 list of “cities on the brink.” A rare GOP mayor, Mary Moran, tried to free the city of its pension obligations with a failed bankruptcy attempt in the 1980s. Instead, the state kept the city under the scrutiny of an oversight board until 1995.
“When I was mayor, I took this city from bankruptcy to fiscal solvency,” said Ganim, who was mayor from 1991 until his conviction in 2003.
He reminded his audience that he stabilized the tax rate, re-established the city’s fiscal credibility, and oversaw the construction, albeit with significant state assistance, of the waterfront arena and adjacent ballpark, home to the Bluefish.
Both Ganim and Rowland threw out ceremonial first pitches to inaugurate the park on opening day in 1998, when Foster was their host. Six years later, Ganim would be in prison, with Rowland soon to follow from his own corruption scandal.
With an underdeveloped waterfront and train service to New York, the city has forever seemed on the verge of taking off. Finch, with some justification, says that time is near: Steelpointe Harbor, a mixed-use project conceived when Ganim was mayor, is finally in construction.
Finch’s re-election and city’s economic development agency advertise similar talking points. The ads can been seen cheek-by-jowl on Grimaldi’s site.
The Finch campaign slogan: “Together, we’re making Bridgeport a city that works for everyone.”
The city’s slogan: “Bridgeport is getting better every day.”
Foster complained that the city is spending $300,000 on economic development ads that help Finch, even if they do not mention him by name. (Ganim did him one better in the 90s, using city money to air statewide television ads featuring him talking about Bridgeport’s comeback.)
Finch and Foster say Bridgeport suffered for years after the Ganim scandal. With a reputation as a place where contractors had to pay to play, developers shied away.
“This issue of public trust is critical,” said Joseph McGee, the vice president of the region’s largest business association, the Business Council of Fairfield County. “We have to be assured the next mayor of the city has earned the public’s trust.”
U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton, who presided over Ganim’s trial, concluded that he lied while testifying in his own behalf, denying wrongdoing. Her tally: Ganim and his friends skimmed $800,000 from city contractors and developers.
Ganim finally admitted his guilt after his release from prison in a speech at a black church, though his contrition was deemed too little and too late to win back his law license.
On WNPR last month, the best he could do in an interview with an incredulous Colin McEnroe was concede: “Huge mistakes were made.”
He marched into the City Hall Annex less than two weeks later to try to present Finch with his plan to create an Office of Public Integrity. Finch’s campaign manager, Maryli Secrest, had a quick retort to the Connecticut Post: “Our plan to root out corruption is to keep Joe Ganim out of office.”
On Wednesday night, Ganim told his audience, “I did things that were wrong, there’s no question.”
“I humbly ask for a second chance,” he said.
The audience applauded.
Foster said she believes in second chances.
“Forgiveness is a gift. It is a gift you give yourself. It’s a gift you give others,” Foster said. “But redemption is something that you earn. I wish Mr. Ganim all the best, but I would like to see him earn redemption some other way.”
She, too, was applauded.