BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) — Bridgeport voters are well aware many in Connecticut are puzzled that former Mayor Joe Ganim stands a good chance of winning back his old office, even though the Democrat served about seven years in prison for public corruption.
Whether they support Ganim or not, residents of the state's largest city have a similar answer as to why the Democrat might be victorious on Nov. 7: It's Bridgeport.
Some, like 76-year-old Howard Latta, who lived in Bridgeport for 23 years before moving to Shelton, said that it's sad, but that voters here have become unfazed by corruption and think "everybody does a little something." Others, like Nicole Phillips, reminisced about lower taxes, better schools, cleaner parks, and safer neighborhoods during Ganim's 12 years in office and argue he deserves a second opportunity.
"Let me tell you something. Bridgeport is a town of family. OK? It's not like he robbed the people. It's not like he stole from us," said Phillips, 42. "Some people who worked for some city contracts worked on his house? Nobody cares about that. He did great things for Bridgeport, and that's what we care about and we want him to continue to do that."
Many apparently feel the same way.
Last week, as he knocked on doors in the Black Rock neighborhood, residents happily agreed to fill out voter registration forms, saying things like, "it's great to have you back." Some leaned out second-floor windows to shout hello to "Joe" or "Mr. Mayor," while others posed for photos with Ganim on their front porches. Drivers stopped to shake his hand, updating him on the latest news about their families.
"We all make mistakes; things happen. But that doesn't mean he's any less of a good person. And I think he was very dedicated to the city of Bridgeport," said Vanessa Perez-Rivera, 32.
Ganim, who once had gubernatorial ambitions, served as mayor from 1991 to 2003. Later that year, he was convicted of 16 charges, including bribery, racketeering and extortion. They stemmed from a scheme to steer city contracts in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in wine, clothes, cash and home improvements. The divorced father of three, now 56, was released in 2010.
Running on a platform of lower taxes, Ganim last month stunned the state by winning the Democratic mayoral primary, defeating two-term Mayor Bill Finch and Mary Jane Foster, vice president of university relations at the University of Bridgeport. With the election a couple weeks away, Ganim must again surpass Foster, who petitioned her way onto the ballot and has been endorsed by Finch, as well as Republican Enrique Torres and five other candidates.
Ganim's opponents contend that his mayoral record has been overstated and misrepresented, and that he has not taken full responsibility for misdeeds and actions that still hamper the economically distressed city. In 2013, the median household income in Bridgeport was $42,687, compared with $67,098 statewide. About 13.6 percent or 6,574 households lived on less than $10,000 a year.
"We are now two mayors away, 3 1/2 terms away, and we are still battling the perception that Bridgeport is a corrupt city, that you cannot do business here, and he is directly responsible for that legacy," Foster said. She predicts investment will stop if Ganim is elected.
Evette Brantley, who served on the city council when Ganim was mayor, said many in Bridgeport are sympathetic toward Ganim because they or their family members may have been incarcerated and therefore feel a felon should be given a second chance. Brantley said she also believes in second chances, but thinks Ganim should first pay his dues in the community.
"Build your trust up and just don't come back and think you can bogart and bully your way back in to an office," she said.
Ganim said people began encouraging him last December to consider another run, following a path blazed by other felon mayors who've been re-elected, such as Buddy Cianci in Providence and Marion Barry in Washington, D.C.
Even during his "worst days," Ganim said he's felt "residual goodwill" and appreciation from residents, especially those in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods who felt neglected by other mayors.
"They feel, wait a minute, this is our guy," Ganim said, adding how "there is a lot of forgiveness in Bridgeport."