Three years after an apology to a crowd of churchgoers served as the launching pad for his improbable political comeback following seven years in prison on public corruption charges, Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim plans to formally enter the race for governor Wednesday.
Ganim, a Democrat, has many supporters in Bridgeport, where he unseated Bill Finch, the incumbent mayor, but his attractiveness as a statewide candidate is tarnished by the 2003 corruption conviction that landed him in federal prison.
“On a state level I think it’s baggage that he’s not going to be able to check at the door,” said Mary-Jane Foster, a Democrat and former vice president at the University of Bridgeport who ran against Ganim in 2015 as a petitioning candidate.
Mike Clark, a retired FBI agent who helped prosecute numerous corrupt public officials in Connecticut, including ex-Gov. John G. Rowland, predicted Ganim’s candidacy was “dead on arrival.”
“I just can’t imagine the voters in Connecticut giving him any traction,” said Clark, who is chairman of the Farmington Republican Town Committee. “It would just be unbelievable to me.”
But supporters of Ganim, who is 58, counter that he has the skill set that Connecticut’s next governor sorely needs. Bridgeport’s fiscal situation was a mess when he was first elected in 1991, with the previous mayor seeking to file for bankruptcy.
“Through hard work and assembling a crew around him all pushing in the right direction he was able to get the city out from under bankruptcy and put it on a good path forward,” said state Rep. Joe Gresko, a Democrat from neighboring Stratford who has worked for Ganim during both of his stints as mayor. “I could see that strength and that ability transferring over to the state level.”
Public perception of his criminal past notwithstanding, the conviction also prevents Ganim from participating in the state’s clean-elections program, where gubernatorial candidates collect $250,000 in small-dollar donations to receive millions in taxpayer-funded election grants. A federal judge recently dismissed Ganim’s challenge of the state law that barred him from participating.
Meanwhile, another state mayor plans to join the race for governor later this week. Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, a Republican, is expected to announce his candidacy in a state capitol press conference. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, a Democrat, is also considering a bid for governor. As many as two dozen people are considering or have announced plans to run for governor.
Ganim was a rising star in the Democratic Party before a 2001 indictment and his conviction two years later on 16 counts of corruption for his part in a scheme to shake down city contractors for more than half a million dollars in cash, meals, suits, fine wine and home renovations.
When he was released from prison in 2010 Ganim spent years trying to get his law license back. After failing at that, he walked into an African-American church in Bridgeport on New Year’s Day in 2015 and told the congregants: “I’m truly sorry.”
“I made some errors in judgment,” he said. “I got involved in the wrong things and I broke the law. I breached the trust so many had placed in me.”
The public apology immediately fueled speculation that Ganim would challenge Finch. And he did.
Foster said Ganim’s comeback in Bridgeport was attributable at least in part to dissatisfaction with Finch and the willingness of voters in the city to elect someone with a criminal past, circumstances that would not present themselves in a statewide run.
Still, Ganim is “an extremely adapt politician and campaigner” and should not be discounted, she said.
Ganim has sought the Democratic nomination for governor once before, in 1994, three years after he was elected mayor. He ultimately was the party's nominee for lieutenant governor that year.
Last year, Ganim attended the Democratic National Convention as a delegate for Hillary Clinton. Before speaking to his fellow Connecticut delegates one morning, he was introduced by U.S. Rep. John Larson as “the comeback kid.”
The race to succeed Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who is not seeking a third term, has drawn a wide array of both Republican and Democratic candidates but no clear front-runners have emerged.
“He’s got the name recognition, but it’s the wrong recognition,” said Gary Rose, a professor of political science at Sacred Heart University. “You know that his opponents within his own party are going to make sure people are reminded of that. In Ganim’s case I don’t believe his candidacy could attract too many voters beyond his own city.”
National political observers have rated Connecticut’s gubernatorial contest a toss-up with Politico opining the election is one of the best chances nationally for Republicans to pick up a governorship.
After forming an exploratory committee for statewide office in April Ganim has held several campaign fundraisers. Through the end of September, his committee had received more than $145,000 in contributions.
Ganim’s candidacy has attracted attention from outside of Connecticut too. The New York Times, which wrote in 2003 that a political comeback by Ganim was “all but out of the question,” carried a story about him exploring a run for governor in May.
In a state that earned the nickname “Corrupticut” after a series of public officials went to jail on corruption charges some worry that a Ganim campaign would hurt the state’s reputation.
“It’s kind of a black eye that he was re-elected as mayor of Bridgeport again,” said Clark, the retired FBI agent and Farmington Republican chairman.
Gresko, the state legislator from Stratford, acknowledged that Ganim’s criminal past is an immediate no-go for some voters.
“If that’s what they’re thinking right out of the chute without diving a little bit deeper, then there’s nothing I can do about that,” he said.
But he gave Ganim credit for returning to Bridgeport and “trying to advance the city.”
“That says something to his character,” Gresko said. “A lot of people would have said, ‘I’m going away.’”
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