Fairfield — It was more a job interview, less a debate. Two skeptical Democrats poked and prodded seven Democratic gubernatorial contenders on stage at a regional forum Sunday that opened with a pointed question about the candidates’ electability and ended with an insistent demand they identify their greatest political vulnerability.
“Everyone has an Achilles’ heel. If you become the Democratic nominee, what is it about you in your past with regard to experience or your style, for instance, that’s going to come up and how do you respond to it?” asked Westport Selectwoman Melissa Kane, a former Democratic town chairwoman. “And I will remind you that everyone has an Achilles’ heel. So if you can’t think of what yours is, we will be here to jog your memory.”
Her gaze and question fell heaviest on Bridgeport Mayor Joseph P. Ganim, the architect and beneficiary of a scheme to extort kickbacks from people who did business with the city during his first tenure as mayor two decades ago. Ganim had said nothing of his conviction at trial on 16 felony counts or the seven years he served in prison when asked about his electability.
“Mr. Ganim, your Achilles’ heel?” Kane asked.
The audience tittered.
“Thanks. Let me, um, let me,” Ganim began haltingly, then said, “You have to be living under a rock not to know that I’m a comeback candidate. I made national news two years ago.”
Ganim, 58, who resigned in 2003 after his conviction in federal court, defeated an incumbent mayor in a Democratic primary in 2015, something locals say had never been accomplished in the long and raucous history of Bridgeport politics. Ganim quickly pivoted Sunday to recalling how as a young mayor he also helped stabilize a city teetering on bankruptcy, reassure credit markets and bring in new development, including a downtown ballpark and arena.
“I made some terrible mistakes, broke the law, resigned from office,” Ganim said. “When I came back, all the pundits, all the politicians said, ‘Well, that will never happen.’ ”
Ganim accepted that he is an unconventional candidate.
“The conventional wisdom went out the window with Trump’s election and, frankly, with my election,” he said.
Kane and Steven Sheinberg, the Democratic town chairman of Fairfield, spent two hours quizzing Ganim and six others competing in a wide-open race for the Democratic nomination to succeed Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a two-term Democrat now polling as having one of the lowest approval ratings of any U.S. governor. When candidates hedged, Kane and Sheinberg pressed with follow-up questions.
Their premise was Democrats are underdogs in holding the governor’s office, a function of the state’s chronic budget struggles, a jobs market that has yet to fully rebound from the 2008 recession, the unpopular governor and a Democratic majority in the General Assembly that has steadily shrunk over four elections since winning super majorities in 2008.
On stage with Ganim at a middle-school auditorium Sunday were: Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, who was elected on the same night as Ganim in 2015, promising to serve a full four-year term; former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, whose career derailed in 2010; Ned Lamont, the antiwar candidate who defeated Joseph I. Lieberman in 2006, only to see Lieberman win as a petitioning candidate that November; Jonathan Harris, a former state senator, Democratic Party official and consumer protection commissioner; Sean Connolly, the former veterans’ affairs commissioner; and Guy L. Smith IV, a retired communications executive who once advised Bill Clinton.
Bronin and Bysiewicz and are exploratory candidates. The other five are declared candidates, committed to the race.
Connolly and Smith are both seeking office for the first time, a fact they offer as a virtue, not a fault.
“Why am I electable? I am electable because I’m not a career politician, and I’m not a career candidate,” said Smith, whose deep, bourbon-barrel voice betrays his roots in Tennessee.
Connolly is a lawyer who grew up in East Hartford, left Connecticut to serve in the Army as a lawyer and then returned to raise a family.
“I’m somebody who brings something unique among my fellow candidates. I have three tiers of experience that no other candidate has,” Connolly said. He is a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, a former global compliance officer at Pratt & Whitney and a former senior executive in state government as commissioner of veterans’ affairs.
Bysiewicz reminded the audience she was the only candidate on stage who had been elected three times to statewide office, beginning in 1998. She was the early front-runner for governor in 2010, but disastrously opted for what appeared to be an easier race for attorney general. But the Supreme Court ruled that she lacked the 10 years of courtroom experience to seek the office.
Lamont’s challenge of Lieberman in 2006 made him a national figure at a time when opponents of the war in Iraq were seeking a way to deliver their message to Washington. But he badly lost a Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2010, despite outspending Malloy. Sheinberg asked him to explain what he’s been doing for the party since 2010.
He replied that he was part of a volunteer group that has been interviewing the chief executives of the state’s 20 largest businesses, trying to gauge their needs for growing in Connecticut.
Lamont said his greatest weakness — never holding statewide office — actually was a strength.
He portrayed himself as an independent voice, willing to consider radical change.
“I don’t want to slip into the happy talk,” Lamont said. “Look, I just turned 64. It’s sort of liberating. I’m not doing this as a stepping stone. I’m not doing this for the next act. As I’ve said before, we’re going to make the tough choices necessary, so that we have a budget that doesn’t borrow from the future, but instead invests in the future. And I don’t give a damn who gets the credit for it.”
Bronin outlined two major vulnerabilities: He was Malloy’s chief legal counsel for two years before resigning to run for mayor; and he demanded financial and work-rule concessions from labor, an influential voice in Democratic primaries, as he tried to stabilize Hartford’s finances.
“Every one of us has Achilles’ heels,” Bronin said. “If you don’t have Achilles’ heels, then you probably haven’t been doing that much for a while.”
That was a reminder that Bysiewicz and Lamont can keep their distance from the unpopular Malloy, but they have not been in the political arena for the better part of a decade. Bronin and Ganim were the only two officeholders on stage.
“As mayor I had to attack a fiscal crisis, and that means asking people to do a lot,” Bronin said. “And that included asking our unions to do a lot, and that means that some of our partners in labor weren’t as happy with me about it.”
Bronin said he supports collective bargaining and the right to organize and pledged to veto right-to-work legislation sought by some Republicans. But he broke with the other candidates by leaving open the possibility he would try to reopen negotiations with state employers over pension and health benefits. Malloy’s willingness to extend the state’s contact with state employees by 10 years in return for concessions was a mistake, Bronin said.
“I served for two years as the governor’s chief legal counsel,” Bronin said. “Republicans will try to tie every single one of us to Malloy, and they’ll sure try to do the same to me.”
Kane asked about his pledge in 2015 to serve a full term as mayor.
Bronin replied that he never expected to be exploring a run for governor, but justified his decision by saying it won’t matter who is mayor of any community if the wrong person is elected governor. “I believe at this moment right now, the next two years to four years are going to set the path for the next 20 in the state of Connecticut,” he said.
Harris acknowledged that he, too, will be tagged as a Malloy ally, given his service as executive director of the Democratic Party during the governor’s re-election campaign in 2014.
Kane asked him about the record $325,000 civil penalty the party paid to settle allegations of campaign finance violations.
“The short answer is we followed the law. We were open and transparent reporting,” Harris said. “It was fully and completely investigated.”
The party, after Harris left to become commissioner of consumer protection, actually fought the release of subpoenaed emails and other documents.
Bysiewicz said her Achilles’ heel may be seen as the 2010 debacle when she ran for attorney general.
“If the worst thing that someone can say about me is I wanted to run for a job where I could stand up and fight for people, and it didn’t work out, so be it,” she said.
Her polling has found no one cares about 201o, she said. She also suggested to the audience that some distance from Hartford since the election of Malloy is not a bad thing
“I am the strongest of all Democrats up here. and perhaps it’s because I didn’t serve a day with Dan Malloy,” she said. “I’m not sure about that, but there it is.”