BRIDGEPORT — Four years ago, Joe Ganim enjoyed a tremendous comeback victory when he won the 2015 mayoral primary.
Having run the city from 1991 until he was convicted of corruption in 2003, Ganim asked Democratic voters to give him a second chance, and they turned out strongly at the polls to do so.
While then-Mayor Bill Finch won the absentee or mail-in ballots, Ganim triumphed where critics of absentee votes argue it counts — the voting machines — and, subsequently, was the primary winner and had an easy victory in the November general election.
This past Tuesday it was the opposite experience for Ganim. Now the incumbent, he defeated primary challenger state Sen. Marilyn Moore — but with absentee ballots. Moore beat Ganim on the voting machines by around 350 votes.
It was an unexpected rebuff. Ganim supporters were anticipating he would win the machines by at least a few hundred ballots.
Some now say Ganim’s failed bid for governor so soon after winning back the mayor’s seat and a recent comment from an African American councilwoman accusing Moore of not being black enough could have worked against the mayor.
“The numbers are the numbers,” said state Rep. Chris Rosario, a former Finch ally who supported Ganim over Moore. “If I’m Joe, I’m really, first of all, humbled. Two, he’s got a lot of work to do (to woo residents).”
Ganim was not introspective when asked by Hearst Connecticut Media to talk about his loss to Moore at the polling places.
“Primaries — and I say this to people throughout the course of it — they’re always low turnout,” the mayor said. “They’re typically close.”
“Whether by machine or through the mail, a vote’s a vote,” Ganim added. “I was confident we were going to win (and) our vote would come out. And they did. It’s an honor to continue as the Democratic nominee.”
But one Ganim supporter, who asked to remain anonymous, said the mayor’s loss at the machines was a surprise to many of those in attendance when numbers were rolling in on primary night.
“I won’t say we’ve done the analysis” of why in-person voters went with Moore, Ganim said, “But we’ll have that opportunity over the next six weeks” ahead of November.
For now Ganim’s only opponent in the general election is Republican John Rodriguez, though Moore is seriously weighing a write-in candidacy, in part because of her machine victory.
Lennie Grimaldi, a veteran of Bridgeport politics who advised the mayor during his first administration and runs the Only in Bridgeport website, noted Tuesday was Ganim’s first primary as an incumbent, and that a close election vote is unusual for Ganim.
Ganim ran the city throughout the 1990s, when mayoral elections were held every two years. The city did not move to four-year terms until after Ganim had been sent to prison.
“He kind of roared through every general election, winning between 77 and 80 percent of the vote, on average,” Grimaldi recalled of Ganim’s first stint in office. “So this was a new animal.”
Rosario and other observers offered a handful of reasons why they believe Moore beat the incumbent on the machines.
“There’s a lot of mixed feelings out there and a lot of finger pointing,” said Steve Nelson, a Democratic leader who lives in Moore’s senate district and supported her for that state seat, but endorsed Ganim in the primary.
“I think in some neighborhoods, especially neighborhoods Joe was strong in where he didn’t win by the margins he did four years ago, there’s a little bit of Ganim fatigue,” Rosario said. “It was less of a vote for Marilyn Moore than a vote against him. And it all goes back to his gubernatorial run.”
Just over a year into his four year comeback term, Ganim in April 2017 launched a bid to become Connecticut’s chief elected official. That effort lasted until August 14, 2018, when Ganim was soundly defeated in the party primary by the statewide Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate, Ned Lamont of Greenwich.
“I just feel that those that had invested their faith in his reform and his redemption were very bitterly disappointed when he made that run for governor,” said a Ganim campaign worker who wished to remain unnamed. “And I don’t think he realized how lasting that wound was to the trust that had been given to him.”
Lamont won every municipality but Bridgeport. And Ganim’s allies at the time fretted that the mayor did not perform as well on his home turf as expected, winning 57.5 percent of the vote to Lamont’s 42.5 percent.
“There are a lot of people upset he jumped to run for governor so quickly,” Rosario had told Hearst back in August 2018.
Ex-Town Clerk Alma Maya, who backed Ganim in 2015, took a job in his new administration, then left the city payroll and supported Moore in the primary, said residents still like the mayor.
“He has a good personality when he’s out there campaigning,” Maya said. “People do like him a lot.”
But, Maya said, there is a feeling that Ganim once back in City Hall “didn’t deliver.” His 2015 campaign seemed fueled by nostalgia, with supporters remembering lower taxes and economic development projects and forgiving his criminal past.
Still others believed that Ganim was wounded when Hearst reported that a close ally, Councilwoman Rev. Mary McBride-Lee, who is black, criticized Moore, who, if elected, would be Bridgeport’s first black and second female mayor.
McBride-Lee during an interview last month complained to Hearst that Moore had not done enough for the minority community.
“If she was really black I probably would support her,” McBride-Lee had said. “I think, sometimes, she forgets she’s black.”
Nelson noted McBride-Lee has been “saying she didn’t say it” — though the councilwoman never contacted Hearst for a correction.
“I think the voters were upset about that and that kind of galvanized the community against the mayor,” Nelson said. “I think minority people were insulted by the comment.”
Nelson added that Moore, who has a reputation as being independent of the city’s Democratic power brokers, did a good job “galvanizing” residents who do not feel a part of city government and Ganim’s administration.
“There are cries in the community that people feel they’re being left out,” Nelson said.
Grimaldi noted that while black voters overwhelmingly backed the mayor four years ago, that vote was roughly split in the primary. And, Grimaldi and others noted, Ganim also did not perform as hoped with Hispanics.
“In general the Latinos like Ganim,” said City Clerk Lydia Martinez. “I see that when Ganim is around the Latino community. But it’s always been a history of low turnout. … I don’t know what else to do. We did knock on doors, we did send messages.”
Looking ahead to November’s general election, Ganim said, “I think Democrats come together as best we can and reach out to unaffiliated (voters) and Republicans and talk about what’s important for the city.”
“People need to feel that he really wants to be our mayor,” Rosario said.