Photo: Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media
BRIDGEPORT — When state Sen. Marilyn Moore beat Mayor Joe Ganim on the voting machines in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, it should have been a fist-pumping moment at her Fairfield Avenue headquarters.
Yet, Ganim eked out a slim, 5,269 to 5,021 vote primary victory using absentee or mail-in ballots. He received 932 absentee votes versus Moore’s 303.
But to lose to Moore on the machines was a sign of vulnerability in November’s general election, given the incumbent had won those votes four years ago.
Rather than celebrating, though, Moore’s advisers and volunteers were stunned by the revelation that the campaign had seemingly botched its long-touted backup plan — to continue her campaign as the Working Families third party’s petition candidate on November’s ballot.
And as of Wednesday evening the suggested easy fixes Moore offered to buoy disheartened supporters Tuesday night — a correctable paperwork mix-up or another third party coming to Moore’s rescue — seemed more and more unrealistic.
Still, Roger Senserrich, spokesman for the Working Families, said the campaign was not giving up.
“We should have a plan before the end of the week,” Senserrich said Wednesday.
Just a few hours before the polls closed Tuesday at 8 p.m., Hearst Connecticut Media reported that, according to Secretary of the State Denise Merrill’s office, Moore in early August failed to submit the 207 signatures necessary to run in November. Her campaign did successfully collect the 2,500 signatures to force Tuesday’s primary with Ganim.
That 207 number equaled 1 percent of the total number of ballots cast in 2015’s general mayor race.
Her campaign turned in around 270 signatures to the Bridgeport Town Clerk to be checked just short of the Aug. 7, 4 p.m. deadline, but only 168 of those counted.
Team Moore, which on August 21 had announced she had qualified, appeared caught off guard and confused and was unable to offer any explanation, including exactly who was responsible for collecting and submitting the petitions to the Town Clerk. But Moore and Lindsay Farrell, president of the Working Families Party, believed the campaign had turned in more than 14 pages.
“We had at least 100 sheets,” Moore told the crowd at her post-primary party at the Bijou Theater.
But on Wednesday morning Town Clerk Charles “Don” Clemons, who won his primary Tuesday on Ganim’s ticket, confirmed his office had only received 14 pages from Moore’s campaign and 15 minutes before that August 7 deadline. Clemons emailed copies of those pages to Hearst, along with a copy of a receipt he said was issued to the Moore campaign which stated “14 pages.”
According to the paperwork Clemons provided Hearst, the bulk of the rejected signatures were those of non-registered voters, with a handful of the names and signatures tossed out for being “illegible.” Around a dozen were categorized as “other.” Some of the petitions offered explanations for the latter rejection, like “inactive” or “felon” or living out-of-town.
Senserrich Wednesday said the Moore campaign planned to thoroughly scrutinize those petitions.
Clemons told Hearst that, typically, candidates contact his office to confirm they have made the ballot — particularly those who, unlike Moore, submit their signatures earlier to ensure they have time to make up for any rejections.
Meanwhile Merrill’s office — having, as required, reviewed the Town Clerk’s paperwork on Moore — on Tuesday drafted a letter alerting Moore that she had failed to qualify as the Working Families’ candidate.
“The Town Clerk reviews and validates the signatures and sends them to our office. Our role is administrative,” Gabe Rosenberg, Merrill’s spokesman said. “More than 225 candidates statewide attempted to petition on to the November 2019 general election ballot. Most submitted, as were the petitions of the Moore campaign, all together at the deadline, and our staff has been working to tabulate the hundreds of petition pages that were delivered to our office at the same time … That process is still ongoing.”
Rosenberg said Moore’s campaign never contacted the Secretary of the State for a status report on her petitions.
No New Movement
For a few minutes Tuesday night it appeared Moore would have the most unlikely of saviors — Tony Barr, an activist with a violent criminal history. Barr was arrested in 2016 for threatening to “blow the mayor’s (Ganim) head off,” gained some political legitimacy when he won a seat on the Democratic Town Committee, and during the primary forged a strange bedfellows alliance with the polished, even-tempered Moore.
Barr has been involved in the New Movement Party, which was founded by his friend Charlie Coviello, who was that party’s 2015 mayoral candidate. Coviello died this past June. Moore and Barr announced at the Bijou their belief that New Movement had a ballot spot for a mayoral candidate in November.
“You talk about second chance and embracing someone who is so different from who you are,” Moore gushed from the Bijou’s stage as Barr shouted in agreement.
However, both the Town Clerk and Secretary of the State confirmed Wednesday that the New Movement Party has no ballot spot because Coviello only received 72 votes in 2015 and needed at least 207 votes — that aforementioned 1 percent worth of petition signatures required of Moore.
Barr could have tried this year to petition his way onto the November ballot as the New Movement Party’s candidate for mayor, but did not.
So Moore, on the face of it, is left with three not-so-easy options: Somehow challenging the decision to reject some of her petition signatures, challenging Ganim’s absentee-ballot fueled win, or mounting a write-in campaign for mayor in November.
Senserrich on Wednesday did not rule out any of the three.
Moore’s allies earlier in the summer had asked the Secretary of the State to provide additional oversight of the absentees, something Merrill at the time said was premature because the election had not been held and there was no evidence of malfeasance.
Team Moore pointed to the history of mail-in ballot abuses in Bridgeport, as recently as late 2017 and early 2018 when Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis and then the state Supreme Court ordered two do-overs of a City Council primary after concluding there was possible voter fraud involving absentee ballots.
Senserrich admitted that a write-in campaign was “Plan C” — meaning the last resort — because of the difficulties involved. However that same tactic worked for Democrat Michael Jarjura in retaining the mayor’s office in Waterbury in 2005.
“It’s not impossible,” Senserrich said. “The election (with Ganim) was so close.”
Ganim did not immediately return a request for comment for this story.