Kevin Rennie: George Jepsen's Exit Scrambles Political Fortunes

Attorney General George Jepsen's decision not to seek a third term has roiled more than one contest for statewide office in 2018. The Democrats have lost their best vote-getter for state office, raising further anxieties about a sweeping backlash against the stark failures of the Malloy-Wyman years.

Jepsen's Monday announcement sent the covetous scrambling in an unattractive display of personal ambition detached from public interest. The calls, texts and emails have been flying all week. Politicians — who were convinced that they ought to be the next governor of Connecticut and were spending many hours every day saying so — suddenly hesitated. Maybe winning the nomination for attorney general would be a lot easier than the spot for the top job.

All their talk about time for an adult to lead the contest for governor? Pay no attention to that. Let those awful pretenders fight it out among themselves. A bid for attorney general will be so much easier. Democrats feel especially possessive of the office because a Republican has not held it for almost 60 years.

While political gatherings go on hiatus during the holiday season, putting a crimp in candidates' opportunities to raise money, maneuvers continue. This may be where Jepsen's loss is felt most in the early going. Should he decide to begin early rehearsals for the role of elder statesman, Democrats and even some discreet Republicans will not have the services of a master, undetected mover of levers. The invisible hand often provides crucial public service.

The holiday respite may also provide a quiet time for candidates to undergo some renovations before the winter competition becomes more intense in state's 169 town committees. The committees make critical decisions on delegates to party conventions.

An informal survey of people who witness these things reveals that Joe Ganim, the mayor of Bridgeport, has been the star of the speaking circuit. It's a lot of drudgery and repetition, but Ganim is able to keep it fresh and interesting. He is especially good with talk of redemption and a brighter future.

Strengths can also be debilitating weaknesses. Ganim's weakness may preclude him from mounting a full campaign for governor. In his first turn leading Bridgeport, Ganim was convicted of corruption and sent to prison. Ganim was back in federal court on Wednesday seeking to overturn a decision by the State Elections Enforcement Commission that his conviction makes him ineligible for the state's generous public campaign finance program. Ganim failed in his attempt. He now must decide whether to appeal the unequivocal decision while still trying to collect contributions and persuade party activists.

Ganim made an undeniable point in his litigation. Unless you are rich, it is probably impossible to mount an effective campaign outside the state's public financing scheme. It has infested many levels of Connecticut politics. The quest for private donations without public financing cannot match the overwhelming power of the small amounts needed to qualify for huge grants of taxpayer money.

Ganim's candidacy raises age old questions of the relationship between power and competence. A candidate may have all sorts of qualifications that make him or her a serious contender for high office. What may be harder to judge, however, is what that person will do with power when entrusted with it. Ganim abused the power he was entrusted with by Bridgeport voters in the 1990s and at the beginning of the new century. He paid a fearsome price with a long prison term. Then he performed the remarkable feat of convincing voters in Bridgeport to trust him again in 2015.

The consequences of Wednesday's court decision will be felt far beyond Ganim's personal decision on whether or not to press on. If he drops out, the mighty Bridgeport delegation to the Democratic state convention comes into play. That is one glittering prize in state Democratic politics. Ganim and the Bridgeport Democrats are preternatural operators at this. They are in their element and often use a simple bargain to negotiate political returns for themselves in the years to come.

If the urgency of time keeps Ganim from pursing an appeal and his candidacy, he will no longer have to trek around the state talking to Democrats, instead they will begin making the political pilgrimage to him.

Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and a former Republican state legislator. He can be reached at kfrennie@yahoo.com

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