Ganim makes his case for governor, confronts past misdeeds
Updated 12:51 pm, Monday, October 9, 2017
Joe Ganim didn’t resurrect his political career by waiting around for invitations.
So when a group of well-heeled Democrats gathered last Sunday in Kent — a confluence of weekenders from Manhattan, prep schoolers and Appalachian Trail hikers sipping kombucha — the mayor of the state’s largest city rolled into town unexpectedly.
His destination was the hilltop villa of lobbyist Vincent Roberti and his son, publicist Dan Roberti, which has its own saltwater infinity pool, a 5,000-bottle wine cellar and gardens inspired by those at the Frick Museum in New York.
It was a stark contrast to Bridgeport, where Ganim is grappling with a 23 percent poverty rate and 20 homicides so far this year, during his second mayoral stint.
The first one didn’t turn out so well, and the one-time lieutenant governor nominee wound up being imprisoned for seven years for accepting bribes that forced his resignation. In 2015, with the backing of the city’s Democratic machine and party boss Mario Testa, Ganim defied the political odds to win back his old office.
Now, the politically shrewd mayor is going off the beaten path but staying on the campaign trail with a bold new pursuit — he wants to be governor.
“At some point I say, ‘I’m not a perfect candidate,’” Ganim told Hearst Connecticut Media. “I usually say tongue-in-cheek, ‘If you find the perfect candidate, let me know, because I’ll support them.’
“If (my past) is a nonstarter for you, that’s OK,” Ganim said. “Most people have not been living under a rock.”
Not on the guest list
Ganim, 57, has raised more than $100,000 through his exploratory committee for the 2018 race, boasting no one understands the plight of Connecticut’s cities better than him and no one in the mix for the Democrats has the kind of statewide name recognition he does. For better or worse.
That’s still a tough sell for some party stalwarts, including the Democratic Coalition of Northwest Connecticut, which hosted a small fundraising meet-and-greet for candidates from nine Litchfield County towns at the Roberti estate last weekend. The group invited most of Ganim’s potential rivals for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to speak, including Middletown Mayor Dan Drew and former federal prosecutor Chris Mattei.
But not Ganim, who raised eyebrows when he showed up unannounced.
“There was a clear unease among the board about his candidacy,” said Dan Roberti, the group’s chairman. “Certainly, that’s not speaking for everyone in the nine towns. He’ll have a tough time getting delegates and voters in this part of the state. But when he walked in the door, we also collectively decided that we would treat him as any other candidate, even though it was a surprise to see him.”
Roberti’s father, a former Bridgeport state legislator and former mayoral candidate, was not in attendance, but state Democratic Party Chairman Nick Balletto was on hand. Those who heard Ganim speak said the mayor had a slip of the tongue and started to thank the group for inviting him, before catching himself and thanking it for organizing the event.
“There’s been a substantial amount of positive, receptive connections and reconnections made personally and politically in cities and towns across Connecticut,” Ganim said. “There’s energy, positive energy, around certain aspects of me being a potential statewide candidate. There’s curiosity, clearly. There’s concern by some, I think, that would like to see other candidates.”
Ganim said he sees similarities in the Bridgeport he inherited his first time as mayor in 1991 and the condition of Connecticut, which is dealing with a budget impasse and the exodus of corporate headquarters such as General Electric, Aetna and Alexion. He’s presenting himself as a turnaround specialist, saying he has brought Bridgeport back from the brink of fiscal and physical ruin.
MGM unveiled plans last month for a $675 million waterfront casino development that it says could bring 7,779 jobs, 2,000 of them permanent, to Bridgeport. The project faces significant obstacles, from gambling expansion foes to opposition from the tribal owners of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, who said their exclusive compact with the state allows only them to build another casino.
Then there are plans to convert Harbor Yard, home to the now-departed Bluefish minor league baseball team for 20 years, to an amphitheater. Like scores of cities across the country, Bridgeport is partnering with New Haven in a pitch to house Amazon’s second headquarters.
Ganim said Bridgeport has reaped substantial grand-list growth during his administration, is getting a $300 million new Barnum train station and will benefit from the decommissioning of Bridgeport’s coal power plant.
“One of the questions I get is, ‘Why do you want to take over a bankrupt state?’” Ganim said. “I said, ‘Look, I did this before, in Bridgeport.’”
As for what makes him different from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a fellow Democrat who ran on his record as Stamford’s former longtime mayor, Ganim said the two cities are “night and day.” He avoided specific criticisms of Malloy, who withheld his endorsement from Ganim in the 2015 mayoral primary.
To some, Malloy’s snub helped Ganim’s anti-establishment credentials.
“If you know somebody more outside, let me know,” Ganim said. “I’m certainly not afraid to challenge the status quo. If you’re a Democrat, I think the party has been better, let’s just say.”
Seeking public money, trust
Ganim’s detractors scoffed at his gubernatorial ambitions and his attempt to qualify for public campaign financing under Connecticut’s clean-elections program. The mayor is suing the state over his disqualification, which stems from his felony conviction for public corruption. At stake is $1.4 million for the primary and $6.5 million for the general election.
“In some states, he wouldn’t even be eligible to vote, much less run for office, much less seek public financing for office,” said Dave Walker, the former U.S. comptroller general and Republican gubernatorial candidate from Bridgeport. “I believe in a second-chance society, but not for public corruption. That’s not personal.”
Walker, who served under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, partly blamed Ganim earlier this year after being unable to sell his home in Bridgeport’s Black Rock neighborhood.
“Bridgeport is worse off today than it was eight years ago, when I moved here,” Walker said.
A record number of politicians are vying to become the heir apparent to Malloy, who is forgoing a bid for a third term. Because of Malloy’s sagging approval ratings and GOP gains in the Legislature, it’s considered by many analysts to be a toss-up race.
“Democrats need somebody with some flash, somebody that really can present that compelling story,” said Scott McLean, a political science professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden. “(Ganim) is a guy that has proved over and over again that he’s not to be underestimated. I think the reason for that is he has a compelling redemption story. He’s gone to prison and he’s come back.”
Known for his charisma and salesmanship, Ganim was noncommittal on a no-taxes pledge as governor, and on whether he would seek more than the $8 million annual hosting fee dangled by MGM for Bridgeport.
On a contentious state employee concessions deal, which was narrowly approved by the Legislature in July with the lieutenant governor casting the tie-breaker, Ganim said he supported the labor pact. He said he is receptive to high-speed highway tolls, another controversial issue.