The Democrats suffered some embarrassing losses in Tuesday’s elections. But one of the biggest embarrassments might have been a race they won.
His resurrection coincides with the surge of old pal Donald Trump. In 1994, Ganim and then-Democrat Trump cooked up a land deal to box out Trump rival Steve Wynn from building a casino in Bridgeport. Instead, Trump would build a massive amusement park in the bottom of Connecticut instead. Trump promised Ganim and Bridgeport that the complex would house the “world’s biggest roller coaster.”
Of course, there was no roller coaster at all, because the amusement park never came. Trump sold the land back to Ganim’s city for $1, forgiving the now-GOP frontrunner of $300,000 per year in back taxes. The mayor fast slid into a pit of corruption that landed him in jail for almost a decade.
Ganim, who served seven years in federal prison before being released in 2010, won an overwhelming 59 percent of the vote in Connecticut’s largest city on Tuesday. He beat out Republican Enrique Torres and Democratic rival Mary-Jane Foster, who was on the ballot as an independent.
Standing in front of a crowd of supporters at his victory party at Testo’s, a Bridgeport restaurant owned by his political patron Mario Testa, Ganim looked like a man who had just walked away from a plane crash unscathed. His acceptance speech tried to strike all the right notes of humility about his past and optimism for the future, and most importantly he tried to explain how the hell this happened.
“And of course, there is an element of redemption in all this, in the true sense of the word. It’s not distant or philosophical or religious redemption. It’s real and it’s human and it applies to every one of us,” he said.
Especially him, apparently.
Redemption is a big theme for Ganim, who campaigned in part by telling the voters that he has seen the error of his ways. He promised to work tirelessly to finish what he started when he previously served as the city’s mayor from 1991 to 2003.
Really though, his election was the result of a power struggle between the new guard in Bridgeport Democratic politics, as represented by current mayor Bill Finch, and the old guard represented by Ganim and Testa that had fallen out of favor when the former went to prison.
Finch, who was running for a third term, and his supporters seemed to think the voters would not give the time of day to a convicted felon who had once turned the mayor’s office into an open-air kickback bazaar.
Well, they were very wrong.
By all accounts, Finch’s camp was caught off-guard of just how deeply mistrust of the administration ran.
And it started with Testa, 69, the local Democratic Town Committee chairman and a fixture in local Democratic politics for decades.
Testa is something of a throwback to the type of party boss that once dominated politics in American cities, particularly in the northeast and the Rust Belt. A native of Italy, he immigrated to Bridgeport while still a teenager. For decades, his restaurant has been a Democratic power spot where Testa could dispense influence and favors along with the food.
Though officially neutral in the mayoral race, Testa admitted to a local reporter that he had been plotting behind the scenes for two years to put Ganim back in office.
“If Bill Finch would have respect for the chairman, he would still be the mayor,” Testa told the Connecticut Post while celebrating Ganim’s victory Tuesday night. “But Bill Finch never respected me as a chairman, or his administration. They wanna run the city and the town committee. That was their defeat.”
Finch, a former Bridgeport City Councilman and majority whip in the state senate, was elected in 2007 partly by promising he would clean corruption out of city government and restore honor to the mayor’s office.
Of course, stopping deals like ones that allow Donald Trumps to pay off back taxes by selling their land for $1 means pissing off the people who benefited from those kinds of arrangements.
It meant firing or at least marginalizing many city employees who owed their careers to Testa’s influence. And many of them never forgot their loyalty to him or their hatred of the man who had once fired them.
Ganim himself rose in local politics partly because of Testa’s patronage. When he resigned his office and entered prison in 2003, Testa’s star also waned. In the wake of the mayor’s conviction, Testa resigned the DTC chairmanship he had held for the previous 11 years.
He regained the chairmanship in 2007, just as Finch was elected to the first of his two terms as mayor. Out of favor with the new guard, Testa chafed at his diminished influence.
So when his old protégé Ganim expressed an interest in regaining his old job, Testa jumped at the chance to make a comeback.
Ganim and Testa also had to contend with the skepticism and outright hostility of the state Democratic Party and Governor Dan Malloy.
Testa’s relationship with Malloy has long been tense. The restauranteur reportedly still holds a grudge over Malloy’s opposition to the casino project in downtown Bridgeport in 1995 that quite literally paved the way for Trump’s amusement park sham, when he was running for mayor of nearby Stamford.
This summer the state party infuriated Testa by sending observers to the party’s nominating convention, held at his restaurant. There, the DTC selected Finch as the party’s nominee by a vote of 49—41.
But Ganim was still able to find enough petition signatures among voters to earn a spot on the primary ballot in September, where he beat Finch for the nomination.
So that’s how a corrupt Mayor got back in: An incalculably large amount of infighting staged by the old guard.
When the results came in Tuesday night, Malloy released a statement saying that “the voters have spoken,” coolly congratulated Ganim on his victory, and expressed his hope that the once and future mayor would work on “building trust” not just within the city, but also “with leaders statewide.”
The election may be over, but Joe Ganim has a lot of work to do to prove to his constituents that they were not just pawns in a game to return power to an old and corrupted machine.