HED FOR BOTH STORIESX
BRIDGEPORT — When a handful of construction unions endorsed Mayor Joe Ganim for governor last week, one member — electrician Louis Soto — took the microphone to praise the Democratic candidate.
“Everywhere you look you see progress,” Soto, a 39-year-old resident, told the crowd gathered along Bridgeport’s harbor front.
Ganim, who is challenging businessman Ned Lamont for the party’s nomination for governor, is presenting himself as a leader who gets things done.
That is a far more flattering description than the alternative — the too-ambitious politician who ran Bridgeport from 1991 until 2003 and both moved the city forward and seriously damaged its reputation. Ganim was sent to prison for his role in a six-year scheme to shake down city contractors for more than $500,000 in cash, expensive meals, clothing, wine and home renovations.
Two-and-a-half years into his four-year “second chance” mayoral term, Ganim likes to boast: “This is the best-run major city in Connecticut.”
At the very least his return did not, as opponents had warned, scare off investors and stop Bridgeport’s fragile economic progress in its tracks.
In 2015, then-Mayor Bill Finch, whom Ganim defeated in a Democratic primary, claimed that Ganim’s re-election would “utterly destroy” Bridgeport’s partnerships with investors, state and federal officials.
“There will be no trust,” Finch said.
Business leaders, statewide politicians and others shared that anxiety.
“That has proven to be incontestably not true,” said Mickey Herbert, head of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council. “I’m not aware of a single developer in this region who has shied away from Bridgeport because we elected an ex-felon.”
Projects Ganim inherited from the Finch years continued uninterrupted: the Steelpoint Harbor mixed-use development site; the coal plant operator PSEG Power LLC’s new gas-fired power plant; and various downtown housing and commercial developments, including the recently opened beer hall and comedy club.
“What (Ganim) hasn’t done is take what was given to him and made it worse,” said Cisco Borres, until recently Bridgeport’s Republican registrar of voters.
Hugh Hallinan, executive producer of the Downtown Cabaret Theatre, has been involved with the playhouse since the 1980 and seen the ups and downs of Bridgeport’s economy under different mayors.
“Overall, I think he’s doing a great job,” Hallinan said of Ganim.
Building a legacy
Ganim has also sought to carve out a new development legacy of his own. The sports and entertainment arena and the minor league ballpark built along the harbor, while embroiled in his corruption scandal, remain highlights of his first tenure in office.
Last year the city struck a deal with developer Howard Saffan and promoter LiveNation to turn the ballpark into a concert amphitheater, and with New York City-based Exact Capital to renovate two historic theaters downtown. There has been little visible progress on any of that.
The amphitheater’s spring 2019 opening was pushed back after the arena’s operator, the Sound Tigers hockey team, alleged Ganim’s deal with Saffan violated the city’s contract with the Tigers.
Ganim has also been a vocal supporter of MGM Resorts International’s aggressive but so-far unsuccessful efforts to receive state approval to build a casino in Bridgeport. And the mayor tried and failed, in partnership with New Haven, to lure Amazon.com to the city.
The East End, whose voters Ganim courted heavily three years ago, continues to wait for a supermarket, first promised by Finch.
“We’re still dragging along, still fighting to get this piece of the pie,” said Keith Williams, an East End community leader.
One of the biggest complaints about Ganim’s handling of the city’s economy was his rollout of widely panned camera-equipped parking meters, which merchants said scared off business. As a result, the meters are supposed to be replaced this summer.
“Oh man, that is a hot mess,” Hallinan said. “They blew that one. That really was a big step back.”
Ganim also campaigned in 2015 to “stop raising taxes,” then hiked the tax rate from 42 mills to 54 mills in his first budget. He said Finch left him a $20 million deficit. Ganim’s subsequent two municipal budgets have not increased taxes.
Meanwhile, the mayor has invested in public safety and hired more cops, but flat-funded the schools. Ex-City Councilman John Olson, who retired last fall, praised Ganim’s development efforts but called his education spending “one of the biggest failures.”
State Rep. Christopher Rosario, a Bridgeport Democrat and Finch supporter, has worked with Ganim, particularly in support of MGM.
“All things considered, he’s done a fair job,” Rosario said. “I do wish he maybe focused on the city more, as opposed to going straight to a gubernatorial election.”