Ken Dixon: Court jester tries to mock campaign law
Published 12:00 am, Sunday, December 3, 2017
It’s always great to see Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim in a federal courtroom. It seems so ... natural.
So there he was in Hartford the other day, a former lawyer, back in the saddle with the troubles of the state’s largest city weighing lightly on the double vents of his suit jacket. For a while Ganim looked relaxed. I mean, it wasn’t as if he was heading back behind bars.
Still, it’s an escape from Bridgeport that’s in his long-term plan. Ganim has been making the rounds of Democratic town committees throughout the state, driving around with Bridgeport Party Chairman Mario Testa, when the latter is not choreographing absentee ballot collections for serial primary elections and more importantly, baking pizzas. Yum!
Why shouldn’t Ganim harbor big dreams of leaping the political chasm from cleaning toilets with a toothbrush in a white-collar prison camp, to that second-floor office in the State Capitol, with the view of Ella Grasso’s statue above the governor’s parking spot?
The emerging competition for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination isn’t exactly a political Kentucky Derby of frisky, electable ponies. Jonathan Harris, a lawyer, the former commissioner of Consumer Protection, former Democratic state chairman, former state senator from West Hartford, has the most experience. How many votes could he generate in an all-hands-on-deck 2018 governor’s race? Ganim and Testa have a whole city, known for bringing the victory, eventually, after ... a ... few ... days of recounting, to Gov. Dan Malloy in 2010.
Ganim’s paid his debt to society. He’s been forgiven by his voters, if you can call winning a Bridgeport mayoral election a type of positive development rather than a sick joke in a city with a twisted sense of humor. It’s a tough town. Times are still hard. Democrats eat their young. Taxes are high, and unrelenting crime makes governing a big challenge, if not impossible. In some ways, the state might be easier to run, with its 40,000 employees.
It’s a long way from potholes and Park Avenue plantings to mouthing platitudes to the General Assembly. And it’s much-cleaner work.
Ganim and his three-person legal team were before U.S. District Judge Michael P. Shea the other day, in attempt to overturn a 2013 state law that permanently bans those convicted of public corruption from participating in the Citizens Election Program, the public-financing arm of the State Elections Enforcement Commission.
The delicious Bridgeport angle to the 2013 statute, is that it was former longtime state representative and senator Ernest E. Newton II, who became the main focus for the law. Newton’s 2012 attempt at a political comeback was about to fall short of the threshold for the public financing for his old Senate seat. A mysterious $500 appeared at the last second. For this, he was eventually arrested. The subsequent jury could not agree on most of the felony charges, so he still faces a retrial. He could also eventually return to federal custody for violating his terms of release. State lawmakers said Newton and his ilk were banned from the Citizens’ Election Program.
In the daisy chain of misdeeds, federal courtrooms and state lawmakers, public financing for General Assembly and top-of-the-ticket races all goes back to the original 2005 legislation following Ganim’s guilty verdicts and John G. Rowland’s first pay-to-play federal plea and incarceration. Check your scorecard for the details on Rowland’s current felony, for which he is still institutionalized.
“The legislature approved the withdrawal of a benefit, not a right,” said Assistant Attorney General Michael K. Skold, representing the defendant State Elections Enforcement Commission. “Individuals, who betray the public trust by engaging in public corruption should not be eligible for public financing.”
Judge Shea dedicated the first 45 minutes of Ganim’s hearing to firing so many questions at the mayor’s lead lawyer, Louis N. George, that I thought the jurist was going to burst out laughing from behind his high desk and black robe.
“Candidates have a right to deliver their message in the campaign free from interference,” George said, hopefully. “Free speech is important and the courts have to stay away.”
“If that is true, is any public financing scheme unconstitutional?” Shea asked. “Why isn’t it lawful for the legislature to say ...
if they engaged in public corruption in the past, you know what, you’re not going to participate in this program?”
“The government is providing funding to one candidate and the opposition is not allowed to participate in that funding,” George replied. “The speech is being impaired. This lifetime prohibition does not exist in any other public-financing scheme.”
“In many states, not here in Connecticut, in many states, felons are barred from access to the ballot,” Shea countered, tipping the hand he would play 90 minutes later, ruling from the bench that Ganim, unless he appeals and gets lucky or unless he runs a helluva convention and raises about $7 million outside the public-financing realm, will be limited to trying to govern Bridgeport.
Ganim has a lot of fundraising ahead of him and Testa is going to have to sell many, many pizzas.
Ken Dixon can be reached in the Capitol at 860-549-4670 or at email@example.com. See twitter.com/KenDixonCT. His Facebook address is kendixonct.hearst.