Voters in Bridgeport, Connecticut go to the polls Wednesday in what’s seen as an improbable, but competitive Democratic primary. A former mayor, who spent seven years in federal prison for corruption while in office, has a shot at winning against a two-term incumbent.
As you drive down Route 95 toward Connecticut’s Gold Coast and pass through Bridgeport, the view from the highway is not so good. Once a thriving factory town, the state’s largest city looks now like a postcard of urban decay.
But Mayor Bill Finch says Bridgeport’s mood is optimistic.
"All of the garbage that you see, those empty and abandoned buildings all of those have been bought," Finch said on WNPR's Colin McEnroe Show. "Its gotten better in the last eight years and with four more years it's going to get better".
Finch says he wants another term as mayor to move forward economic development projects long sidelined by scandals and corruption. In fact, Bridgeport's political history reads like a bio of its most famous resident, circus man P.T. Barnum.
There was mayor John Fabrizi who admitted he used cocaine while in office. And he’d taken over from the charismatic Joe Ganim who ran Bridgeport for eleven years until he was convicted of steering city contracts in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in wine, clothes, cash, and home improvements.
Ganim spent seven years in prison. Now he’s back, and says this time around he's committed to transparency in City Hall.
“Why? 'Cause we know how mistakes can be made. I made 'em. I paid for 'em”
Businesswoman Mary-Jane Foster is the third candidate in the race. She’s best known as co-founder of the minor league baseball team the Bridgeport Bluefish.
“It’s time for a change. I frankly think it’s time for a woman to run this city,” says Foster .
Lennie Grimaldi has worked for all three candidates. He was a consultant for Foster, and as a political strategist, ran races for both Finch and Ganim.
"There are people from outside of Bridgeport who look at this race and go, why is it close?" Grimaldi said.
Grimaldi is in a unique position to answer that. “Full disclosure. I was Joe Ganim’s campaign manager. I made my share of bad decisions and spent, you know, ten months in the joint because of it.”
Now Grimaldi runs the respected online news site called Only In Bridgeport.
“From every measure of progress that you can examine, this race really shouldn’t be close, but when you scratch the surface of that progress, you have all these underlying issues that come cascading out,” says Grimaldi.
Issues like public safety. Overall crime in Bridgeport is down, but lately, there’s been a surge in violent crime. Ganim’s promise to increase police staffing levels helped earn the former felon the endorsement of the city’s police union.
And Grimaldi points to an unlikely Ganim supporter. “The FBI agent that investigated Joe Ganim is supporting him. People question how could he endorse the guy he locked up? Well he’s out there saying he believes in second chances,” Grimaldi explains.
And that’s a message people in Bridgeport connect with.
Resident Cal Luongo, out for a jog in Seaside Park, says he still does.
“You know, I know there’s a lot of talk about Ganim, however when he was mayor before the corruption, I think he did a fine job for Bridgeport. And I strongly believe that everybody needs a second chance,” Luongo said.
Listen below to voters in Bridgeport talk about their views about the election:
There have been no real polls on the mayoral race, but the Democratic primary has broken spending records. Bridgeport is a heavily Democratic city, and the winner typically goes on to become the city’s next mayor.