Connecticut hasn’t done very well at some stuff lately (think job creation or restoring storm-downed power lines), but we’ve definitely got a talent for rehabbing ex-con politicians.
First it was our felonious former governor, John G. Rowland. He emerged from a federal pen, got a lucrative public post as economic development czar for his hometown of Waterbury and a talk show gig on a Hartford AM station.
Then Bridgeport’s most famous convicted mayor, Joseph Ganim, finished his seven-year stretch for bribery and was soon being discussed as a potential mayoral candidate. Lately, he’s back in the news for operating a website/consulting business advising folks headed for the penitentiary on how to shorten their sentences.
And finally there’s Ernest Newton II, also from Bridgeport, who is through with his prison term, made his final restitution payment, and got his voting rights back just last month. Ernie, who once called himself “the Moses of my people,” is now planning to run for the state Senate seat he was forced to give up after being indicted for cashing in on his office.
There are two schools of thought about the re-emergence of these one-time political pariahs.
The first is that these bastards should keep their heads down and not bother us again.
“It boggles my mind,” state House Republican Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. says of the idea of Newton or Ganim or even Rowland ever running for public office.
“If somebody has done their time, paid their debt to society and wants to contribute something, there’s a whole host of ways to do that without running for office again,” Cafero adds. “There’s charity work, or volunteer work… I would suggest to all of them to look to the private sector.”
State Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, said that while these once prominent politicians all may have done some good during their careers, “Each had a dark side… and I don’t think voters will forget the dark side.”
“In their little minds, they’re convinced they didn’t do anything different from what everybody else was doing; they just got caught,” says Deputy State House Speaker Robert Godfrey, a 20-year veteran of the General Assembly. “They’re just wrong – everybody doesn’t do it!”
He argues these dudes belong “to a special class of fallen politicians who, for ego reasons, need to validate themselves,” whether it’s Newton running for office again or Rowland blathering on talk radio.
The other viewpoint is that the final verdict about whether these former officials should be allowed back in the public arena should be left up to voters and the general public.
(In case you’re wondering, Connecticut — unlike some states — allows convicted felons to regain their voting rights and their right to run for office after successfully completing their sentences and paying all fines and restitution. That legal change came in 1998 and the governor who signed it into law happened to be John Rowland.)
“It’s up to the voters to decide if they want Ernie back or not, if they want Ganim or don’t want Ganim,” argues Dick Foley, a former state lawmaker, former state Republican Party chairman, and current lobbyist. “In the case of former Gov. Rowland, it’s up to the listeners. If they turn the dial, he’s not on the air any more.”
Foley spent time in federal prison himself. He was convicted on four federal charges back in the early 1990s, logged 128 days behind bars, and eventually had all of the charges against him overturned. He says he also thought about running for elective office again after it was all over.
“I think everybody things about it,” he says of politicians whose careers are cut short by political scandals or criminal charges. “Because it didn’t end on terms you understand. … You can understand losing at the polls. You may not like it, but at least you can understand it.”
Lennie Grimaldi sees no reason why a former felon shouldn’t try for public office again. “Why not? Let the voters decide. They did their time. That’s the way our system works.”
Grimaldi also did federal time — 10 months for being Ganim’s accomplice in the Bridgeport corruption scandal. Grimaldi turned himself in, became a key prosecution witness at Ganim’s trial, and now writes the popular and influential political blog, “Only In Bridgeport.”
“We all want to be relevant,” Grimaldi says of people like himself, Rowland, Ganim and Newton. “Either this stuff eats you up, or you find a way to reinvent yourself.”
“To me, the more visible you are, the better off you are,” he says. As for Rowland, Grimaldi says, “A radio gig is a good place for these guys to land. All these guys have a swagger, they all have huge egos.”
(Rowland, by the way, is expecting to lose his $95,000-a-year economic development job next year when his contract runs out. Waterbury’s new Democratic mayor, Neil O’Leary, has other plans for that post.)
Grimaldi says he hasn’t spoken to Ganim in more than a decade, but sees no reason why the former mayor shouldn’t be active politically. “People don’t want him to be a lawyer, they don’t want him to run for public office… What the fuck do you want the guy to do?”
Godfrey’s answer to that is simple: just go away.
“Your 15 minutes of fame is over.”