Joe Ganim’s first campaign for a second chance
Bridgeport – On a jubilant day of door-knocking in the East End, the closest Joe Ganim came to a sour moment was at the end of Wilmot Avenue, where a woman demanded to know how someone convicted of a crime still can participate in electoral politics.
But Tara Albuquerque wasn’t being sarcastic. She wasn’t questioning how Ganim can vote and run for mayor again after spending seven years in prison. On the contrary, she and two friends seemed thrilled to find Ganim on their doorstep.
Her question was, well, practical.
“I’m off parole,” Albuquerque told Ganim, who wore a white golf shirt emblazoned with a crescent of blue letters promoting his candidacy, JOE GANIM FOR MAYOR. “They will not let me vote.”
Ganim was a lawyer before he went to prison a dozen years ago, ending more than two decades as mayor. He explained the law as he understood it. His conclusion: She was eligible to register.
And he just happened to have the right form to fill out.
“If I’m wrong on the law, they’ll reject the card,” Ganim said. “But I think I’m right. If you’re off parole…”
He was interrupted by one of the door-knocking crew, a thin man in a baggy, gray velour track suit.
“You’re right, Joe,” the man said confidently. “You’re right.”
It was Ernest Newton II, who also was familiar with the state law regarding the restoration of voting rights. He served in the state House, the state Senate and federal prison. Since he got out, Newton’s lost two comeback tries, first in a bid for his old Senate seat, then for the House.
Albuquerque signed a voter registration card. So did her two friends. They also asked for a lawn sign. Ganim says his campaign registered about 2,000 voters. If there was going to be an anecdote reported about Joe Ganim and Ernie Newton instructing an ex-con how to register, so be it.
Ganim was leaving Wilmot Avenue in good spirits.
He won last week’s Democratic primary by 400 votes over Mayor Bill Finch. This week, Finch’s plan to stay on the ballot as a minor-party candidate fell apart. The Republican nominee for mayor, Enrique Torres, says the two-term Democratic mayor came to him hat in hand, asking if he would surrender the GOP nomination. He declined.
“That’s a train wreck,” Ganim would say later. He noted that Finch once sent out Christmas cards picturing Barack Obama, who has twice visited Bridgeport. “And he’s begging to go become a Republican? I mean, that’s desperate.”
Finch was unavailable for an interview Wednesday.
On a walk from a satellite campaign office on Stratford Avenue, a tired commercial strip in a black neighborhood, Ganim and a growing entourage popped into the Kingdom Cutters barbershop and a corner convenience store before turning onto Wilmot.
Tom Coble, who was fired from his city hall job running an anti-blight program, stayed close, ready to help with introductions. But everyone seemed to recognize Ganim.
“They’re all glad you’re back,” Coble said.
Ganim’s mission was to thank those who voted for him last week, remind them to turn out again on Nov. 3, and work to expand the base. He carried a voter list, showing Wilmot heavily populated with Democrats, a smatter of unaffiliated and at least one Republican.
Vernon Marsh, a retired correction officer who says he owns three well-tended homes on Wilmot, told Ganim he needed to do something about real-estate taxes.
“The tax issue, it’s not a joke here,” Ganim said.
Citing a study by H&R Block, which counts total tax burden, one of Ganim’s favorite talking points is that Bridgeport residents are the highest taxed in the U.S.
Ganim later would nudge Danny Pizarro, his volunteer driver, to talk about taxes. It’s how they met. Pizarro is a major landlord, the owner of about 100 housing units, all in three-family houses.
“I have houses that pay over $13,000 in taxes,” Pizarro said. “It’s too much.”
Ganim first came into office amid a financial crisis. He was elected in 1991, succeeding the rare Republican mayor, Mary Moran. She is best remembered for trying to have the city declare bankruptcy, one of the many tragicomic chapters in Bridgeport’s history.
The mayor was 32 when he took office, a bold bantam of a politician, short and broad-shouldered, thick wavy hair, strong handshake, quick smile, easy way with people.
Three years later, he explored a run for governor, his name recognition boosted by a city-funded television campaign promoting Bridgeport’s comeback. He settled for the nominee as lieutenant governor on a ticket that lost to Gov. John G. Rowland.
He arrived on Wilmot Avenue as a celebrity, the surprise winner of a primary, a man who was mayor when the city got a ballpark and an arena near the waterfront. The East End seemed to get cleaned up on his watch. He got an award from the U.S. Conference of Mayors for his anti-blight initiative, “Clean and Green.”
But the U.S. attorney’s office later made the case that Ganim got kickbacks from the Clean-and-Green contractors hired to demolish vacant buildings. It wasn’t a one-time thing. The evidence at trial was that his pay-to-play ways took in at least $500,000. The trial was 12 years ago. He’s been out for five.
“I think people felt, when you get past the difficult stuff, that I was a very effective mayor, and I got things done,” Ganim said. “And I affected their lives in a positive way.”
Ganim is 55 now, the divorced father of three, the youngest a 14-year-old boy. The hairline is higher, the handshake still firm. On Wilmot Avenue, he was treated like his return to office was a done deal.
At one house, a young mother asked about after-school activities. At another, another complained that her special-needs son was at the wrong school. He asked questions, promised to find answers. After talking to an older woman, he told Coble she’d need an absentee ballot in November.
Everyone was asked if they wanted a picture. The shots would end up on Facebook, which didn’t exist when he last was mayor. Neither did selfies, a staple of the 2015 campaign.
Around the corner, Ganim knocked on a door he’s tried before. Each time, he found no one home.
“There are seven votes in there,” he said.
A neighbor said some of the children are away at college.
“They still can vote here,” he said.
Ganim kept walking, a white guy in a black neighborhood. He drew a curious look from a young woman in a parked car. One of his volunteers, a tall and rangy man named Kenn Beasley, saw the look and smiled.
“You know who that is?” Beasley said. He paused a beat, then told her, “Joe Ganim.”
“You’re lying!” the woman said, laughing. She leaned out the window and screamed, “Hello, Mr. Ganim!”
“Who is that?” Ganim shouted back, pretending to be cross. “Who’s yelling at me?”
She asked for a picture.
“Selfie or regular?” Ganim asked.
Two friends crowded close. Ganim took the woman’s smart phone, held it up at what he knew was a good angle and snapped the selfie. They looked at the photo and laughed like old friends.
“Like it on Facebook, OK?” Ganim said.
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