Bridgeport Mayor Joseph P. Ganim. mark pazniokas /
Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim at the Capitol on Wednesday. mark pazniokas /

Bridgeport Mayor Joseph P. Ganim’s formal entrance into the race for governor Wednesday presents Democratic officials with two unsettling scenarios: Either they make peace with the prospect of their ticket being led by a convicted extortionist, or they try to dissuade the mayor of Connecticut’s largest city from running in a Democratic primary.

Four years after the state Supreme Court unanimously concluded Ganim lacked the “good moral character” to resume the practice of law, he is presenting himself to Democrats as ready to lead Connecticut, albeit as “an imperfect candidate” who served seven years in prison on 16 felony counts related to a kickback scheme he led during his first stint as mayor.

Ganim, 58, who resigned as mayor in 2003 and returned to office in 2015,  said he was unaware of any precedent in the U.S. for a politician winning an election for governor after a conviction on major public-corruption charges and a long stay in prison.

“The short answer is no, I haven’t done the research on it. But if this is trailblazing, I think that’s what we need now,” Ganim said. “I think people are ready for a change, ready for someone who is bold, willing to step up, take on the status quo and say, ‘I’m willing to make changes. And if I cut a different profile, take a look at me.’ ”

Ganim filed his candidate papers Wednesday in Hartford, stopped at the State Capitol to chat with reporters and then embarked on a tour of several cities that included an unscheduled stop on I-84 in Southington, when a state trooper pulled over an SUV rented by his campaign and driven by a Bridgeport police officer, Ramon Garcia, who is assigned to Ganim’s security detail.

A reporter in Ganim’s vehicle tweeted that the state trooper clocked the car as going 100 miles per hour, but the trooper issued no written warning or ticket. State police said the vehicle was clocked by laser at 87 miles per hour and the trooper used his discretion to issue a verbal warning.

The traffic stop was an inauspicious start to a campaign that already sustained one significant setback: A federal judge in November dismissed Ganim’s challenge of a state law that bars him from seeking public financing of his campaign, because of his conviction on corruption charges related to his duties as mayor.

Ganim was convicted in 2003 and released from prison in 2010, winning early release for his participation in a drug treatment program. A local bar committee accepted his application to resume practicing law, but was overridden by a panel of Superior Court judges, whose decision was upheld by the Supreme Court in a scathing assessment of Ganim’s conduct as mayor.

“It was not an isolated instance of misjudgment, but rather, was extensive in scope, prolonged over a period of five years and marked by a consistent pattern of dishonesty, self- interest and violation of the public trust,” Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers wrote for the court. “The defendant’s misconduct was not the unfortunate missteps of a young and inexperienced attorney, but instead, was the calculated behavior of a mature, sophisticated attorney who served as the mayor of the state’s largest city.”

Bridgeport voters were more forgiving.

They returned him to office in 2015, when Ganim defeated Mayor Bill Finch in a primary, the first such loss by an incumbent Democratic mayor in that city. Ganim insists he is viable as a statewide candidate, despite his inability to seek public financing. Many Democrats are privately skeptical, while the state party’s chairman, Nick Balletto, offered a measured response Wednesday.

“I think we have a long way to go. I think everybody has a right to put themselves in front of the Democratic Party and the Democratic electorate,” Balletto said. “It will sort itself out in due time.”

Chris Mattei, a candidate for attorney general who once oversaw public corruption investigations for the U.S. attorney’s office in Connecticut, said he would prefer to see someone other than Ganim lead the Democratic ticket. “We’re a long way off from that reality,” he said.

Ganim said he believes Connecticut voters will be more charitable.

“I think they are open to second chances,” he said.

Ganim was elected in 1991 and re-elected in 1995, when the federal prosecutors say he began a kickback scheme with two aides, Lennie Grimaldi and Paul Pinto. One opened a consulting firm, the other joined one. Ganim steered contracts to their clients; in return, they kicked back a portion of their fees to Ganim.

Both Pinto and Grimaldi testified at trial. Ganim testified, insisting he was innocent.

A jury convicted Ganim of racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, extortion, theft of honest services, bribery, conspiracy to commit bribery and filing false tax returns by failing to report more than $300,000 paid to him or his wife by Pinto and Grimaldi. In sentencing Ganim, the judge said the evidence was clear that Ganim had lied under oath.

The judge’s assessment that Ganim lied and his reluctance to take responsibility for his crimes contributed to a judicial panel blocking his readmission to the bar.

Ganim said Wednesday he demonstrated remorse and that he has changed.

“Since then, I think there’s been a lot of things that I’ve done and demonstrated both publicly and privately,” Ganim said. “One is to go back to the people of the city of Bridgeport to ask them if they would consider putting me back in the mayor’s office in a position of trust, with a level of transparency and accountability that was unseen in Bridgeport and, frankly, any other city.”

Ganim’s first task will be to demonstrate he can raise money. Ganim raised $146,460 in an exploratory campaign from April 2017 through Sept. 30. Campaign finance reports for the final quarter of 2017 are not due until next week.

Ganim joins Middletown Mayor Dan Drew as a declared candidate for the Democratic nomination, while Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, Ned Lamont, former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, former state Sen. Jonathan Harris, Dita Bhargarva and Sean Connolly are considering seeking the nomination.

He said his 14 years as mayor make him the Democrats’ best candidate. He invites the press and public to apply the same scrutiny to them as they do to him.

“Take a good hard look,” Ganim said. “I’ve said I’m far from a perfect candidate, but I think I have the most to offer.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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