Bridgeport Mayor Joseph P. Ganim mark pazniokas /
Bridgeport Mayor Joseph P. Ganim. mark pazniokas /

Bridgeport Mayor Joseph P. Ganim, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate fighting skepticism that a convicted felon can win statewide office, is opening a petition drive that signals to party leaders that any hopes of his going away are misplaced.

Ganim said Monday he intends to begin gathering signatures Tuesday to qualify for the primary in August, a defense against the party denying him sufficient support at the nominating convention on May 18. More significantly, he broadly hinted that any efforts to quash his candidacy could endanger turnout in Bridgeport, the state’s largest city.

“This is about including people in a process that, right now, people are feeling pushed aside by party insiders,” Ganim said.

Ganim reminded party leaders of how the Democratic establishment’s support for Hillary Clinton in 2016 turned off rank-and-file activists who mobilized around the insurgent campaign of Bernie Sanders. He said “top-down insiders” played games at the national convention to disadvantage Sanders.

“I don’t want that to happen in Connecticut,” Ganim said. “I hope it doesn’t.”

The mayor’s candidacy has posed an awkward challenge for Democrats from its launch on Jan. 3. Most, including his rivals for the nomination, have refrained from publicly questioning the credibility of his candidacy — a reflection of the crucial role his city must play if Democrats are to retain control of the governor’s office.

Ganim said Monday that Connecticut voters are more open to his candidacy than party leaders, and he insisted that he could replicate his upset return to Bridgeport’s city hall in 2015 on a statewide basis this fall.

“There wasn’t a politician that would would stand next to me at that time, and there weren’t too many reporters who gave us much of a chance,” Ganim said.

The easiest way to qualify for a primary is to win 15 percent of the vote at the nominating convention, which requires support from 300 of the 1,998 delegates who will gather at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford. Bridgeport will send 90 delegates to the convention.

An alternate route is to gather petitions from 2 percent of registered Democrats, about 15,500.

Ganim faces a tight timetable: Under state election rules, his campaign can begin gathering signatures Tuesday and must submit them for authentication by 4 p.m. on June 12. His goal is to arrive at the convention in Hartford with the task substantially complete.

The Democratic field started to narrow last week when former state Sen. Jonathan Harris dropped out and endorsed Ned Lamont, a Greenwich businessman who was the surprising, if convincing, winner of a recent straw poll by the AFL-CIO. Ganim finished sixth in a straw poll with five candidates and the additional choice of  “no one at this time.”

Harris’s withdrawal was a blow to Ganim, whose best hopes for winning a primary rest with a crowded field. But the convention is now focusing on Lamont and Susan Bysiewicz, the former secretary of the state. Sean Connolly, the former veterans affairs commissioner, also is competing at the convention for the endorsement. Guy L. Smith IV, a former corporate communications executive who worked in the Clinton White House, is bypassing the convention and is petitioning.

Ganim served seven years in prison on charges related to what a federal jury concluded was a systematic shakedown of contractors doing business with Bridgeport during his first tenure as mayor. He refers to the shakedown scheme as “a terrible mistake.”

Ganim’s corruption conviction bars him from public financing, but his campaign committee quickly raised more than $400,000, including $96,000 raised by his exploratory campaign, since declaring his candidacy on Jan. 3.

In the quarterly finance report filed April 10, Ganim had $335,000 in available cash, enough to hire the workforce necessary to gather the signatures.

Ganim was first elected mayor in 1991, resigning after his conviction in 2003 on 16 felonies, including extortion.

He won an early release from prison in 2010 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.

Bridgeport voters were more forgiving of a mayor who helped the city avoid bankruptcy in his first term. In 2015, Ganim defeated Mayor Bill Finch in a primary, the first such loss by an incumbent Democratic mayor in that city.

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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