Ex-cons running for their old positions historically face steep odds of getting back into office — especially if their record includes on-the-job corruption. James Traficant, Jr., the late Ohio Democrat, in 2010 failed to recapture his congressional seat after serving seven years in prison on federal corruption charges.
Local mayors have a different connection to their electorate, but even the famous Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, Jr. couldn’t rebound from a corruption conviction. Cianci had his 21-year rule of Providence, R.I. interrupted twice by criminal charges. The assault charge he came back from after a no-contest plea. The second legal drama cost him the mayor’s office. It came after his top aide, Frank Corrente, was caught on camera accepting a bribe. Cianci, who died Jan. 28, served almost five years in prison. When he ran for mayor again in 2014, he lost to Jorge Elorza.
In Connecticut, Joe Ganim succeeded where Traficant and Cianci failed. He became the second-chance mayor of Bridgeport partly because he turned his biggest negative — his criminal record — into a positive. He also capitalized on his skill as a retail politician to generate selfie moments with supporters to keep his Facebook page humming. Moreover, targeted direct mail allowed him to counter charges he was untrustworthy and helped build a renaissance narrative.
At the peak of his first dozen years in office, Ganim was attracting developers to the city, which helped revitalized its downtown. But he did that using a pay-to-play scheme where he collected more than $500,000 in bribes, which were funneled through his former fundraiser, Paul Pinto, and campaign manager, Leonard “Lennie” Grimaldi.
“There was this enormous nostalgia wrapped around the good times when Joe was mayor, but he had 16 felonies — bribery, extortion, racketeering, conspiracy — and they all came from kickback schemes,” said Susan Katz, a consultant who produced some of Ganim’s traditional and digital media.
Ganim was once the city’s golden boy. When he was elected mayor at the age of 31 in 1991, Bridgeport was bankrupt and facing high crime and unemployment. He hired more police and cleaned up blight. The city’s economy improved, it’s finances got better and it emerged from bankruptcy. Voters had high regard for Ganim before he was brought down by the corruption scandal. His legal trouble was so dire Ganim was facing up to 126 years in prison when he was convicted by a federal jury in 2003. He went on to serve seven years of a nine-year sentence.
By the time Ganim was actively preparing to run again, voters’ distrust had calcified. Even the word trust was considered risqué by his campaign.
“We didn’t want to use the word trust because trust what was what was being questioned,” said Katz. “In every headline, it was always felon or ex-con. That was really being trumpeted throughout the media.”
Katz started with the campaign as a photographer hired to follow Ganim while he campaigned in urban neighborhoods and drew photogenic crowds. She knew Ganim personally after having worked on his first unsuccessful bid for mayor in 1989. “I knew he was truly sorry for what had happened,” said Katz. “And I knew if he got his message out, with the enormous anti-Finch sentiment out there, he could win.”
She became a trusted advisor to Ganim during his comeback run, but some members of the campaign team weren’t sold on Katz’s approach.
A Fresh Start
Ganim tried to inoculate himself against attacks on his criminal record by starting 2015 apologizing for his sins at a prominent African-American church during a New Year’s Day service. Still, the campaign team wanted him to go further to visually emphasize his redemption with a mailer. Katz suggested a image of Ganim at the beach. “Bridgeport has the most magnificent vista of all of Long Island Sound,” she said.
Others on the campaign team balked.
“A few people felt that the beach doesn’t resonate with urban voters,” said said Ken Flatto, a campaign advisor. They asked, “Does that connect with people who have day-to-day worries?”
Katz said she pushed forward and organized a beach day with Ganim. What better way is there to symbolize Ganim’s rebirth than to shoot him coming out of the water?
“He had his shoes off and was wearing just a pair of jeans and a plain T-shirt, and he’s walking up from the beach with seagulls behind him,” recalled Katz. “That message really played well with voters.”
Putting aside worries it was too informal, the campaign dropped the piece in June in its first citywide mailing, according to Flatto. Voters were introduced to the new Joe and sympathy for Ganim became firmly established. Moreover, there was a growing sense he could win.
Ganim had formed an exploratory committee after his apology speech in January 2015. During a kickoff event, the committee anticipated roughly 75 people attending. In fact, 350 people showed up. There was a line out the door. “Everybody was extremely supportive,” said Gina Malheiro, the campaign’s co-finance director. The kickoff event raised raised $50,000 and gave Ganim the seed money to put together an organization that could compete with incumbent mayor Bill Finch, who was sitting on a $600,000 warchest.
The Historical Precedent
Despite a sitting mayor having never lost a primary, Finch’s campaign was alarmed. It sent 10 mailers in the lead up to the primary. One suggested Ganim aided and abetted the Klu Klux Klan after his jail term for paralegal work he’d done on the legal team of a man on trial for selling guns to the KKK. It was meant to undercut Ganim’s support with African Americans. One just showed an empty jail cell with the banner: “Joe Ganim 7 years.”
Ganim’s campaign team was caught off guard. After some deliberation, they rallied around a strategy. “There was definitely a consensus in our campaign group that if Joe went negative it would undermine his position as, ‘I’m the reformer, I’m going to do right by you, I’m going to do better than the guy who’s in there now,’” said Flatto, who’s now Bridgeport’s finance director. “We could tag him on a few issues but we had to be mostly positive.”
They countered with an issues piece and what become known as the “remorse letter,” which included a personal note where Ganim apologized and promised to do better. Ganim sent only five preprimary mailers to Finch’s 10, but his above-the-fray strategy worked.
Voters interpreted Finch’s attacks as over the top. “In almost any city where people have suffered, you’re going to be a lot more sensitive to that kind of messaging,” said Grimaldi, Ganim’s former campaign manager who now runs the blog onlyinbridgeport.com. “They attacked him too much, too hard, too soon.”
Finch’s tactics backfired, added Katz. “Many people said, ‘My cousin is an ex-con; I’m an ex-con, stop it already.’”
The Ex-Con And The Mayor
Campaign donations in local Bridgeport elections are capped at $1,000 per individual for a primary campaign and another $1,000 in the general. Through his old political network and family and friends, Ganim was able to raise $350,000 to compete in the primary. In addition to direct mail and print newspaper advertising, part of Ganim’s budget went to a voter registration effort that fanned out to supermarkets and housing projects around the city. The campaign registered some 1,000 new voters, two sources said. Some new voters were felons, who like Ganim are able to vote in Connecticut after getting released from custody.
Meanwhile, in addition to attacking his opponent’s obvious vulnerability, Finch had the support of the local political establishment and endorsements from two of the most powerful Democrats in the state: Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Gov. Dan Malloy.
Moreover, he had the backing of major city unions with one glaring exception — the local police union. “The police hated him,” Katz said. “So the funny part was, here we are with an ex-con and who endorses us? The police union endorses us.”
Ganim revealed one other clutch endorsement before the primary. Ed Adams, the ex-FBI agent who planted the wiretaps that helped put Ganim in prison, endorsed his campaign. "Everybody deserves a second chance," Adams said last May.
Not everyone in the bureau agreed with that view, but Ganim still defeated Finch in the September primary. The sitting mayor tried to get back into the race as a minor-party candidate but failed. As a result, Ganim’s main competition in last November’s general was fellow Democrat Mary-Jane Foster. By then Ganim’s campaign started to use a single word to define his candidacy: believe. “We wanted to come up with an approach when we were building on the win,” said Flatto. “It was believe in Joe, and Joe’s for the people.” Ganim’s campaign coffers swelled to $600,000. He won the general with 59 percent of the vote.
His improbable victory a little more than five years after leaving prison was about “taking a difficult past and turning it into a credential,” said Katz. “The success of this is rather miraculous.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article identifed James Traficant as a Republican. He served in Congress as a Democrat.