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.