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Bridgeport Mayoral Candidate Joe Ganim Looking for a "Second Chance"

Ryan Caron King
Former Mayor Joe Ganim at a mayoral debate in September.
Bridgeport's former Mayor Joe Ganim is staging a dramatic comeback.

An ex-convict could be elected mayor when voters in Bridgeport head to the polls on Tuesday. The city's former Mayor Joe Ganim spent seven years in a federal prison for corruption. Now he's staging a dramatic comeback. He won the city's Democratic primary against a two-term incumbent last month. 

Maximino Medina, Jr. said there's one question he keeps getting asked: 

"What the hell is going on in Bridgeport with this Ganim nonsense?" 

Medina's a lawyer in private practice now. But for 16 years, he served on Bridgeport's Board of Education. Part of that time was under the administration of then Mayor Joe Ganim. Ganim was elected in the early '90s, but his career suddenly ground to a halt in 2003. He got seven years in federal prison for awarding city contracts in exchange for things like expensive clothes, wine, and cash. Now Ganim's back in Bridgeport, and he says he's looking for a second chance.

"And it's a second chance city if you end up going out and talking to people" Ganim said, on WNPR's The Colin McEnroe Show earlier this year. 

And Ganim is seizing on that idea with an aggressive boots-on-the-ground campaign. On a late afternoon, just days before the election, Ganim pulled up outside a school in a black SUV. He got out, quickly looked around, and even though the parking lot was practically deserted, homed in on one woman. Immediately he started campaigning, reminding her to vote.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How you doing, Joe?

GANIM: Picking up?


GANIM: Listen, don't forget Tuesday.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, come on. You think I'm going to forget?

GANIM: Thank you. Thank you.

"It's like he's a star. I mean, people want to take a picture. People want to be seen with him. They're honking their horns. They are happy to see him back," said Ernie Newton, a former Bridgeport state senator and, like Ganim, a convicted felon. Charges of bribery, tax evasion, and mail fraud sent Newton to prison for nearly five years. He served part of his sentence with Joe Ganim at Fort Dix prison in New Jersey. Newton said Ganim's political foes have spent too much time attacking the ex-mayor's past crimes, a message he said might not play as well in a place that's seen harder times.

"Bridgeport is a place of people who have made mistakes," said Newton, "children who have been to prison, husbands who have been to prison -- that need second chances."

When it comes to Ganim's second chance, his main challenger Mary-Jane Foster doesn't want him to have it. 

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Mayor candidate Mary-Jane Foster, center, sits between Joe Ganim, left, and incumbent Mayor Bill Finch, right.

"We are only beginning to come back from the corruption of the past. Bridgeport is finally moving forward. We cannot afford to become the laughingstock of the nation," Foster said at a recent debate.

Foster's own candidacy has been complicated. She lost to Ganim by a wide margin in Bridgeport's Democratic primary. She then dropped off the ballot only to re-enter the race as a petitioning candidate when incumbent Mayor Bill Finch didn't file the appropriate paperwork to run himself. At Seaside Park in Bridgeport, resident Phil Soltero said he believes in second chances.

"You know, we all make mistakes in life, and I guess he feels that he is the best candidate. And it looks like that the voters in the Democratic Party also thought that, too, so he's got a backing," Soltero said. 

Not only Ganim sees Bridgeport as a second chance city, two other petitioning candidates in the race for mayor have criminal records. 

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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