2018 elections

Establishment vs. Ex-con in Connecticut Democrats’s Gubernatorial Primary

Democratic candidate for governor Ned Lamont, left, debates with Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim in New Haven, Conn., . Lamont is the party's endorsed candidate, while Ganim petitioned his way onto the Aug. 14 ballot.
Democratic candidate for governor Ned Lamont, left, debates with Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim in New Haven, Conn., . Lamont is the party’s endorsed candidate, while Ganim petitioned his way onto the Aug. 14 ballot. Photo: Jessica Hill/AP/REX/Shutterstock

It is a few weeks before the primary and the likely next governor of Connecticut is touring a sprawling arts camp in New Haven, where hundreds of kids from the city are spending their summer learning dance, DJing, web design, and vocal arranging.

“I’m Farmer Dee,” says one of the counselors by way of introduction, a dreadlocked urban gardener wearing a purple T-shirt and an amulet necklace, introducing himself and his charges’ overflowing vegetable garden.

“Nice to meet ya! I’m Ned L!” Lamont says, offering his hand.

Inside, he talks to the kids about the Supremes, Otis Redding, quizzes them on if they know what year Michael Jackson was born. He laughs at his own jokes, a staccato “HA-HA-HA”. A group of kids tell him they like his tie, which features a single black sheep surrounded by rows of white ones. Lamont looks down and nods his head. He swings by the kitchen where some young people are learning the ins and outs of restaurant work. “Wanna be a chef someday? Do ya? Pretty good gig you know,” says Lamont, whose net worth is believed to be somewhere between $100–$300 million. He visits a women’s empowerment mural on the edge of town. The artist behind it, Kwadwo Adae, a popular New Haven–based painter, looks into Lamont’s eyes and talks about the power of art, how it can be therapy, give young people a way to express themselves through words, how people make art by tapping into a sacred part of themselves, by healing.

“And some people do it by making the coolest coat in the world, hahaha!” Lamont says, pointing to Adae swirling paint-splattered smock. “I tell ya, I’d do anything to get out of these blue blazers all the time.”

If Lamont does in fact become the next governor of Connecticut, it will largely be because of two factors: 1) He is a Democrat, and 2) almost everyone else was driven out of the race. The outgoing Democratic governor, Dan Malloy, is the least popular governor in America right now, with an approval rating just above 20 percent. When he decided to not seek a third term, after winning his first term by half a percentage point and his second by two, a handful of top Democrats in the state jumped into the race. But while they started to raise money, Lamont, who had no need to do so, courted party power brokers and convention delegates, until it began to seem as if there weren’t a credible path in the primary for anyone else.

Almost anyone else, anyway. In a world which seems to give politicians nothing but second chances, Joe Ganim tests the boundaries of patience. Elected mayor of Bridgeport without a day of government experience when he was just 32 on a platform of restoring law-and-order and revitalizing his blue-collar hometown, Ganim quickly emerged as one of the rising stars of the Democratic Party, winning reelection four times. Then, in 2003, Ganim was caught scheming to shake down city contractors for more than half a million dollars and convicted of racketeering, extortion, bribery, and mail fraud.

Connecticut has no shortage of politicians mired in scandal. Still, after Ganim was convicted, the New York Times said in its write-up that Ganim “was convicted on such a broad array of charges that a political comeback is all but out of the question, political and legal experts said.”

“The state is way off on the wrong track,” Ganim says now, sitting in the front passenger seat of his city-owned SUV. “The state is not going to turn around unless you get someone in there who knows the challenges, who has the experience with turning things around.”

Ganim did seven years, got out, got divorced, moved to downtown Bridgeport, started a consulting firm called “Federal Prison Consultant LLC” that aimed to assist white-collar criminals navigate their time in the big house, ran for mayor of Bridgeport again, got one of the FBI agents who arrested him to endorse his campaign, and to the shock of pretty much everyone, won by 400 votes.

Not content with staging one of the great comebacks in American political history, Ganim announced in 2018 that he was going to run for governor, undeterred even after his car was clocked going 100 miles an hour on the first day of his campaign, a traffic stop chronicled by a reporter whom he invited along for the ride.

As Ganim tells it, his past is well-known. Connecticut needs him. The state is what political scientists refer to as “a shitshow.” Connecticut is so screwed up that its level of screwed-up-edness has attracted the attention of multiple national news outlets. “What On Earth Is Wrong With Connecticut?” asked The Atlantic last year.

The answer is a lot of things, among them anemic job growth, a declining population, the worst pension system, and longtime employers like GE and UBS fleeing to Boston and New York. Despite the fact that it has some of the highest income and property taxes in the nation, Connecticut’s budget deficit is careening toward $2.6 billion a year.

Ganim, meanwhile, points to his record in Bridgeport: block after block of blight removal and over a billion dollars in new development to Bridgeport. He’s stayed scandal-free, too — since his return, his administration has been a model of transparency and accountability. Bridgeport’s future seems bright; elections are about the future, anyway.

And, according to Ganim, they are about Lamont and his net worth — which Ganim describes as “about $100–$300 million more than mine,” his Greenwich mansion and whether Lamont has “ever had the pleasure” of cleaning one of its eight bathrooms.

Ganim has compared Lamont’s home to one owned by Donald Trump, and asked voters if they can tell the difference, even though it is Ganim who was invited to Trump’s wedding to Marla Maples after the two teamed up on an unsuccessful casino project in the 1990s. He’s hit Lamont for being a member of an all-white country club, a membership he didn’t drop until he ran for the Senate in 2006. “You tell me — is he a liberal Democrat or a Prescott Bush Republican?”

That race was what brought Lamont to national consciousness. It was at the height of the unfolding chaos of the Iraq War that Lamont challenged one of its most prominent supporters, Joe Lieberman in a Democratic primary. Despite his wealth — Lamont is both an heir to one of the first chairmen of J.P. Morgan and a telecommunications magnate — he was seen as a crusading liberal hero. The national image though turned out to be Lamont’s downfall when Lieberman mounted an independent run in the general election and beat Lamont by ten points in a three-way race.

Running for governor in 2010, Lamont overlearned his lesson, presenting himself as a moderate, technocratic businessman. Malloy got to his left and stayed there, hammering Lamont and promising higher taxes on the rich, a raise in the minimum wage and mandatory paid sick leave. A poll two months out had Lamont up by seventeen points. A poll a week out had Lamont up by five. He ended up losing by fifteen points.

It is this history of electoral collapse that has Democrats so worried. Shockingly, even though Connecticut is home to Quinnipiac University, which hosts one of the most respected polling outfits in the world, there has been no public polling of the race. After spending $26 million of his own money on his previous two failed statewide bids, Lamont is running in 2018 on the cheap, having spent under $1 million according to a July campaign finance report. That’s not much more than the $360,000 Ganim has spent, which he has managed to raise despite his felony conviction keeping him from the state’s generous campaign finance matching system.

Some of Lamont’s loot went toward campaign ads, one of which featured Lamont sipping coffee at a crowded diner, looking away from the camera, and talking to no one in particular — one imagines a harried waitress waiting for her tip as the intended audience — while he lists the problems with the state’s tax system. In another, Lamont looks straight ahead while driving around in a Chevy Equinox. He talks about how at 64, he doesn’t need the job of governor, will forego a salary, and bangs the steering wheel a couple of times while saying “I don’t need a government car. This one is going to do just fine.” The Ganim camp did a quick title search and found out that the car wasn’t Lamont’s. “Nothing wrong with driving around in Chevy, but that’s not your car,” Ganim told the Hartford Courant.

“It’s the Ned Lamont Talking At You Tour!” seethed one Connecticut Democratic operative. “Who wants to watch a guy talking to himself?”

Democrats nominated Lamont at their state convention earlier in the summer. Rather than quit, Ganim and his skeletal campaign staff went door-to-door and gathered 32,000 signatures, double what is required to get on the ballot. He became the first Democrat in state history to petition his way onto the ballot, and believes that he if he can just get some portion of those signers to turn out, he has a decent chance of winning. With his limited campaign funds, he is sticking to Connecticut’s major cities, especially Bridgeport.

“You have a lot of Democrats who say they are going to go out and vote because they are mad about what Trump is doing. But they are thinking about November. A lot of people don’t have the energy or the awareness or come out in a primary on a Tuesday in the middle of August,” he said as he instructed his driver to pull in front of his Bridgeport house, a modest home that he rents out the top floor of and which he pointed out has far fewer than eight bathrooms.

“My opponent is in the one percent of the one percent, the elite of the elite. If you are in the top one of the top one percent, you don’t really have that much to come out and vote for. Maybe you care about taxes, maybe you care about the inheritance tax or the income tax, but I think what drives most voters is whether or not there are good jobs or if the economy is going strong or what is wrong with our public education system.”

That may be true. But Gamin, to put it mildly, is very flawed as standard-bearer for the interests of blue collar Democrats. “He got a second chance as mayor of Bridgeport, and he should concentrate on that,” said Edwin Vargas, a Hartford-area state representative.

Asked what he liked about Lamont, Vargas said his campaign ads.

“Have you seen his ads? He’s got this stream-of-consciousness thing going. I kind of liked it. I have never seen ads like that.”

According to one Democratic operative, Ganim’s negative are in the high 70s per private polling, and several Connecticut political insiders said that it is nearly inconceivable that the state’s voters would turn to someone who was in prison for longer than he has been out of it.

“Joe Ganim has every right to run for office, and his is a pretty interesting comeback story, but seven years in jail?” said Roy Occhiogrosso, a longtime Democratic operative. “He’s a good mayor, he’s a great campaigner, but it’s sort of like, ‘But for that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?’”

Still, no one knows who is going to turn out to vote. It is a primary dead in the middle of August where very few voters are paying attention. It is also 2018, and politics has gone berserk. Maybe Gamin can’t win, but weirder things have happened.

Connecticut Dem Gov Primary: Establishment vs. Ex-Con