Thursday, September 17, 2015

Ganim Stuns


By Reginald Johnson

  BRIDGEPORT ---- I’m sorry. This is hard to comprehend.

  Joe Ganim, he of 16 felony convictions for corruption during his time as mayor in the 1990s and an alumni of federal prison, has won the support of a majority of Democrats voting in a primary to be their standard bearer in the general election for mayor in November.

   Huh? Is this incredible or what?

  Ever since Wednesday night when it was becoming apparent that Ganim was going to beat out incumbent Mayor Bill Finch and businesswoman Mary-Jane Foster for the Democratic Party nomination, I’ve been trying to figure this out. It hasn’t been easy.

  I saw the vote totals come up on the board on Channel 12 and I saw Ganim ahead with well over 5,000 votes. Finch also had over 5,000, but was behind by about 200-300. Then I saw the joyous people at the Ganim election party --- at Testo’s Restaurant of course --- people smiling, laughing and hugging Joe Gamin. Ganim had just declared victory.

   I thought, are these people delusional? What are they thinking?

  What is it about Joe Ganim or what did he do or say in his campaign that is so compelling that people would just wipe away his outrageous record as mayor --- being involved in one of the worst municipal corruption scandals in New England history --- and decide to back him?

  I went over in my mind the various possible reasons. Angst over high taxes. Yes, that’s a reason to be upset with the incumbent, though taxes weren’t exactly low during the Ganim years. Another is Finch’s personality.  Finch can be spiteful and sometimes arrogant, which showed during the Board of Education takeover plan. His persona turned a number of people off.

 And then there’s the police union. Police were upset over contract cuts and staffing shortages in the Finch years. OK, those are reasonable complaints, too. That’s a lot of votes there, between union members and their spouses, brothers and sisters.

 But here’s the $64 question. Why, if you’re upset with Finch for those reasons, would you make the leap and go for someone so tarnished by corruption as Ganim, when there’s a viable alternative in the race, in Mary-Jane Foster?

  Foster was a good candidate, no political baggage, and a proven executive and business person.

   Why would so many people just pass her over, and opt for Ganim?

  I don’t know for sure, but I think there probably two key factors.  First is, a lot of the people going for Ganim were angry over having lost something during the Finch years, something they had in the Ganim years. A job, a position, a title, a program that was lost. A good number of people are in this category and some of them had legitimate beefs. It looks as if these folks were willing to set aside the memory of Ganim’s corruption, because Joe was the guy that was going to make things right, because he did it before, not Foster. This was the guy that was going to float their ship.

  The other thing at work, I believe, was that Ganim pandered successfully to the black community, making lots of promises and glossing over his record. He got a lot of votes from the African-American community. He demagogically played on the public safety issue, blaming Finch for crime in black neighborhoods, when actually crime rates in the city are down. Ganim of course conveniently didn’t tell people that violent crime rates were much worse during his years as mayor. (Remember the “Phoenix Barriers”?)

  He also wasn’t about to tell people that his record on affordable housing  --- another issue very important to many blacks --- was terrible. In the Ganim years, hundreds of units of housing were torn down, with minimal replacement.

    Many blacks were apparently sympathetic to Ganim’s plea for redemption. ‘I did wrong, I served my time, now I want a second chance.’ I think blacks related to that because possibly they knew someone who went to jail, and then came out, and needed a second chance to right themselves. During interviews I did around the city, I heard “he deserves a second chance” several times from black residents.

   There may be other reasons that factored in the primary result, some possibly that could come out from investigations. We’ll just have to see.

  In meantime, it’s shaping up for the general election as Joe Ganim, Democrat, versus Rick Torres, Republican, and Bill Finch, who said he will stick it out and run on a third party ticket, and possibly Foster and others on independent tickets as well.

   Ganim, now the Democratic nominee, has to be favored in this city which usually elects the Democratic Party nominee for mayor.

   Whatever Finch’s flaws, I think the city was basically headed in the right direction the last few years. What happened yesterday was a step backwards.


   A few thoughts on media coverage of the primary race. Basically, it wasn’t very good.
  The Connecticut Post, the main vehicle for coverage, did a fairly good job with breaking news on the campaign. Brian Lockhart is a good reporter, though he tends to over featurize his stories. Everything reads like a column. But overall, not a bad job on regular campaign news.

   My chief complaint is where the paper placed stories related to the campaign and Finch’s administration, and not doing some larger stories on the race. I don’t know whether the paper was bending over backwards to look impartial, or whether they were just teed off at Finch over transparency issues, but they wound up underplaying some news stories that happened to make Finch look good.
Recently, the Hampton Inn chain announced they were going to build a Hampton Inn at Steel Point. This is a major development. A top hotel coming to town --- the first in about 30 years --- well, that’s a big story. It deserves Page 1. But instead it was placed inside the paper. Why?

Downtown developer Phil Kuchma also had a major announcement recently that he was beginning a Phase II in his downtown development. That’s also big. But the Post ran it inside.

 I didn’t get every single paper over the last six months, so maybe I missed this. But there should have been a large, blow-out piece on Joe Ganim. He was mayor for 12 years, and so much happened in this period. The Post should have detailed what he did, both legally and illegally, both the good and the bad. The controversial zoning cases, the demolitions, the fight over the Juvenile Detention Center, the construction of the Bluefish stadium and the Arena, the secrecy of his administration, and finally the corruption cases themselves.

 People who weren’t around needed to be informed, and others needed to be reminded.
But as far as I know, no such a piece ever appeared.

  Also, the Post created the feeling in this race that the real battle was just between Finch and Ganim. Foster got second fiddle. There should have been more equal coverage all the way around.

  Finally, the Post should have dug into some of the claims of irregularities going on during the campaign --- issues about questionable petition signatures, absentee ballots, and so on. The Post, owned by the huge Hearst Newspapers Corporation, could have put the resources into play to do this, but they didn’t. Instead, they left it to state investigators to probe the complaints, and there will be no results for months. When results are announced, the election will have come and gone, and the issue will be a moot point for most voters.

  That's too bad, because voters should get critical information about verified wrongdoing before an election, not after.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Bridgeport Primary Battle

 By Reginald Johnson


    BRIDGEPORT --- The most hotly-contested Democratic mayoral primary in years will be decided this Wednesday, and by all appearances the vote may be very close.

    Incumbent Mayor Bill Finch, the party-endorsed candidate is trying to fend off a strong challenge from the city’s former mayor, Joseph Ganim, and businesswoman and University of Bridgeport executive Mary Jane Foster.

    Finch has been mayor for eight years and is seeking a third term; Ganim was the mayor for 12 years from 1991 to 2003, and then was forced out following his conviction on corruption charges; Foster is trying for a second time to be elected mayor following her defeat at the hands of Finch in 2011.

    The biggest story in this election has clearly been the comeback bid by Ganim and his attempt to oust Finch, a one-time ally when Ganim was mayor and Finch was a state senator representing part of Bridgeport.

 For someone with such a tainted record, Ganim has shown surprising strength. Ganim has raised over $200,000 for his campaign in a short period and fell just a few votes short of landing the Democratic Town Committee endorsement for mayor in July.

   But Finch has countered with a substantial fundraising effort of his own, amassing over $500,000 for his reelection effort. He also has won the support of the city’s business community and backing of high-ranking state elected officials, like Gov. Dannel T. Malloy.

  Foster has raised about $70,000 for her campaign, far less than her opponents. But she is waging a determined campaign and may be getting some traction with her pledge that she will bring integrity to City Hall, which has been rocked by so many corruption and ethics scandals over the years.

    Whoever wins the primary will be the favorite to be Bridgeport’s next mayor --- given the Democrats’ huge edge here in voter enrollment --- although City Councilman Rick Torres, the Republican candidate for mayor, will certainly have something to say about the outcome of the general election.

  This reporter drove around the city and conducted some random interviews to try to get a feel for how this contest is going.

  The first thing that jumps out is that, despite his prison past, Joe Ganim has significant support. Joe Ganim lawn signs have sprouted in every neighborhood. People who own the homes where those signs are located, particularly black residents, say the former mayor did a lot of good things for the city and shouldn’t be remembered just for his illegal acts.

    “He paid his dues. He deserves a second chance,” said Janet Adams, who is black and lives on Anton Street.  “All politicians do it,” said Adams of Ganim’s illegal activities. “He just got caught.”

A Joe Ganim lawn sign near Testo's Restaurant on Madison Avenue. The restaurant is owned by Democratic Town Committee Chairman Mario Testa.


    Echoing the sentiment of forgiveness was Jeanette, a black resident on Hughes Avenue in the West Side. “He’ll be on his best behavior,” she said of Ganim, should he be elected.

   The West Side resident said in addition to rolling back high taxes, she wanted a mayor who will be tougher on crime. “Safety means a lot to me,” she said, noting that her boyfriend is a city police officer.

   The Bridgeport police union, angered over contract cuts and staff shortages under Finch, has endorsed Ganim.

   Mark, a white resident of Golden Rod Avenue also thought Ganim would never try any tricks this time because “everyone will be watching.”

  Standing near a “Stop Raising Taxes – Vote Joe Ganim” sign in his front yard, Mark added, “Finch has raised taxes every year since he was elected.”  He also credited Ganim with “getting the city moving again.”

  But the tour also showed considerable support for Mayor Finch. “Bill Finch” lawn signs are as widespread as Ganim’s. People say that Finch deserves credit for finally getting the Steel Point development off the ground and building new schools.

  “For Steel Point alone, he deserves to be re-elected,” said Dennis Scinto, a homeowner on Madison Avenue, about the mayor.

   Scinto, a Democratic Party district leader and city sheriff, rebutted those who say Finch has raised taxes too much. “Taxes haven’t gone up that much. They go up everywhere. I was in Stratford the other day and people are complaining over there about higher taxes,” he said.

Bill Finch, Bridgeport's incumbent mayor, is facing a strong challenge in Wednesday's Democratic primary.

  Scinto, a one-time member of the city council during the Ganim years, refrained from harshly criticizing Ganim. All the same, he said he’s still upset over what happened with the Stop and Shop Supermarket. That store, now an empty hulk, was built in the 1990s opposite his house on the other side of Madison Avenue, in the middle of a residential zone.

  Despite bitter opposition from the neighborhood, the Planning and Zoning Commission under Ganim awarded a special permit to Ganim’s favored developer, Al Lenoci (who later went to jail), to break the zone and build the store. The store lasted about 12 years.

   “Whenever I open my door in the morning, I look out and see this empty building,” said Scinto. “That’s Joe Ganim.”

  John Soltis, a long-time Democrat who lives in Black Rock, said he backed Finch because “he’s done a good job, and he’s the best candidate.”
   Soltis, a city employee, said Bridgeport will suffer from a “perception problem” if Ganim becomes mayor again.

  “If you’re a developer and you have a choice between Norwalk and Bridgeport, and Ganim is mayor, where are you going to go?” Soltis said.

   Ed Gomes, a state senator from Bridgeport and a veteran political and labor activist, is backing Foster.

   “Mary Jane Foster has integrity and honesty. She has the best interests of the people of the city of Bridgeport,” Gomes said.

Mary Jane Foster is stressing integrity in her campaign to win the Democratic Party mayoral primary in Bridgeport.

   Finch has failed in some key areas and Ganim is unsuitable as a mayoral choice, due to his record, he said.

   “Finch promised a $600 tax break when he started. It never materialized. The he raised taxes four separate times,” said Gomes.

   He also said that Finch is unduly taking credit for the Steel Point and school-rebuilding program. The groundwork for those projects was done over many years by a lot of different people, Gomes said.

   On Ganim, Gomes said, the former mayor does deserve an opportunity to turn his life around. “But there’s other ways for him to restore his life besides being mayor,” he said.

   “Foster will restore trust in our city government,” he said.