It was not the first time corruption had come to Hartford. Governor John Rowland, who served from 1957 to 2004 resigned in disgrace in the face of allegations of graft and receiving improper gifts while in office. The capital city’s mayor between 2001 and 2010, Eddie Perez, pled guilty to charges of extortion and bribery. Hartford’s following mayor, Pedro Segarra, was implicated in a taxpayer-funded spending spree that included caviar.
But even in the melee that is Connecticut state politics, Democrat Joe Ganim stands out. Ganim served as Bridgeport’s mayor from 1991 to 2003 when he was convicted on 16 felony charges. In total, he had funneled into his pockets a half-million dollars worth of “cash, diamonds, expensive wine, tailored clothing, high-priced meals, and home renovations.” In the now-famous words that former White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, used to describe the current administration: “You can’t make this s**t up.”
And the crazy has just begun. After thirteen years, seven of which were spent in prison, Ganim ran for reelection as mayor of Bridgeport and won, emerging victorious against six other candidates, including incumbent Bill Finch. In April, he launched an exploratory campaign for the state’s highest office. In December, someone made a fake Twitter account pretending to officially launch a campaign. This January third, Ganim actually did file paperwork to run for governor.
Grace Haviland, ‘21, who lives in Fairfield, explained that among her neighbors, “the general feeling has been surprise.”
Sophomore Isabel Bysiewicz, a Branford native, expressed bewilderment at Ganim’s quick turnaround.
“It’s confusing for some Connecticut residents that he is running now,” she commented, both because he has spent only a meager few years in office since his prison time and because the Democratic party is at a historic low after Governor Dannel Malloy’s unpopular eight years (an approval rating of 23 percent makes him the second-least popular governor in the country, only after Chris Christie).
The sudden decision in April by Governor Malloy not to seek reelection certainly did set a free-for-all tone for the election season. There are already 15 candidates for governor, with 14 more listed on Ballotpedia as either “exploring” or “potential.” In sharp contrast, the 2014 election had only three total candidates and the 2010 election had just five candidates.
“I think both fields are pretty wide open. Connecticut is ready for a change,” Danbury Mayor and Republican candidate Mark Boughton commented.
He expressed confidence that that change could come in the form of a shift in power from Democrat to Republican.
This “ready for a change” mentality seems to be driving this election. Connecticut’s 2018 gubernatorial election is not just politics as usual. Ganim is proudly waving the title of “outsider,” as are candidates Steve Obsitnik (a Republican CEO and veteran) and Mark Stewart (a Democrat small business owner).
And maybe that is what is driving Ganim’s choice to run now. In an interview on WNHH FM’s Dateline New Haven radio show, he acknowledged that he wasn’t going to be an easy candidate to endorse, “your mainstream established Democrats who will go nameless wouldn’t go anywhere near Joe Ganim.”
That outsider, against-the-system quality is what voters may want to see, given Connecticut’s underperforming economy and Malloy’s deflated approval.
Ganim, at least, brands himself well in that regard. He is an exciting candidate, he is not a Hartford bureaucrat, and he is on the right side of too dangerous to be palatable. As Haviland notes “the surprise [of his re-entrance to politics] has lessened.”
But even with his confident media presence and his ability to look friendly and pull his kids into publicity shots—just your average Joe—he has a lot of hurdles ahead. Perhaps most notably is Connecticut’s Citizens’ Election Program, which prevents those with “felonies related to their public office” from applying for campaign funds under the Clean Election Law. Traditionally, to get public funding for a gubernatorial race in Connecticut, a candidate must (a) qualify to run and (b) raise $250,000 in small-dollar donations in order to prove the interest of voters.
Ganim is already well on his way to the $250,000 mark—he had raised $200,000 by January tenth—but unlike his opponents, he will not have access to funding in the millions if he reaches the threshold. Ganim raged against this system in an op-ed in the Hartford Courant, in which he argued that the law not only violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments by enhancing some political speech while diminishing other dialogue but also explained that the system is counterproductive. The law exists to guard against large donations from special interest groups—one reason why not having access to funds now allows Ganim to accept donations of up to $3,500 as opposed to the $100 cap he would face were he able and planning to access public funds.
As Mayor Mark Boughton of Danbury, also running for Governor but as a Republican, explained: “the Clean Elections system is one of the most rigorous systems with one of the most rigorous reporting requirements that I’ve seen.”
Leaving Ganim out may be a principled choice, but perhaps not the most prudential.
Lewis Conway Jr, a criminal justice advocate and author of Change the Whether, explains that because “fundraising is the lifeblood of the campaign,” withholding access to equal public funding is dangerously discriminatory and has a strong effect on candidates’ ability to run at all. It’s too dangerous, Conway explains, to try and delineate between types of crimes; it opens the floodgates for abuse of government power. If there will be public campaign finance at all, it needs to be allocated equally.
Without the same funding as his opponents, Ganim requires lots and lots of support from voters.
“A lot of people will be concerned because of his corruption, ” said Emily Ji, ‘21, of Fairfield.
Over dinner table discussions, her family has agreed that “in our eyes, it would definitely hurt his reputation when he’s running for governor. We don’t feel that comfortable trusting a governor who’s had issues with corruption.”
It only looks worse from there for Ganim.
“Even if Democrats can overlook Joe Ganim’s felony charge, they have to be practical in understanding that he’s going to face very difficult backlash from Republicans [in the general election] who want to take away center-left voters because of those issues,” Bysiewicz explained. “Democrats right now really want to put forth the strongest candidate because it’s totally plausible that a Republican is going to win.”
As Bysiewicz notes, Ganim was one of the first people to put his hat in the race for governor, and for that, he was at least not disregarded immediately. Democratic Connecticutians discussed his candidacy patiently, but are keeping their eyes open for the “major players” they expected to step in soon, like Hartford Mayor Luke Bronan (who is now running) and businessman Ned Lamont (who is still considering a bid). She explains that due to his criminal past, Ganim is just a “less serious candidate,” and Connecticut is treating him as such.
Ganim knows he is an “unperfect candidate,” and has pledged to double down on efforts to connect with voters and prove that he is a changed man. But just this month, he was pulled over for flouting the law again: he was caught speeding between two Connecticut cities on the way to a part of his statewide campaign kickoff.
To all of the nitpickers, his opponents, and anyone who believes him unfit, Ganim still touts his confident response: “Bring it on.”