Ganim builds a bridge to re-election
BRIDGEPORT — It took Mayor Joe Ganim several minutes Friday to mention his re-election bid at an event touting the state’s decision to fund half of the new $24 million Congress Street Bridge between downtown and the East Side.
Ganim eventually saw his opening when the topic turned to the construction timeline.
With federal approval required for the bridge designs, which are just 30 percent complete, the city’s architect said he expected ground to be broken sometime next year.
“Me, I’d like to have it before November 2019, myself,” Ganim joked to the crowd of fellow elected officials and municipal staff.
Though technically not a campaign event, Friday’s press conference, on the downtown side of Congress Street along the Pequonnock River, could have been a soft kickoff to Ganim’s bid for another four-year-term.
The mayor, who faces potential challenges from two fellow Democrats, state Sen. Marilyn Moore and state Rep. Charlie Stallworth, is aware he must convince voters he has made solid progress on key promises.
On Wednesday, Ganim’s office, via email, announced the mayor had “hosted the first monthly department head meeting of 2019 to recap last year’s accomplishments, discuss overcoming challenges, and set new department goals for the city.” The media had not been invited to that meeting, and the bulk of the email read like a campaign flyer promoting the good Ganim’s administration has so far done.
Near the top was momentum on the Congress Street Bridge. Installing a new span across the Pequonnock to re-establish a direct route between downtown and the East Side was certainly a promise the mayor made to residents.
“We’re going to make a real push for it,” he told Hearst Connecticut Media in December 2016.
The original Congress Street structure was a drawbridge stuck in the open position in 1997, during Ganim’s first 12 years running Bridgeport. It was torn down in 2010 under then-Mayor Bill Finch, whom Ganim defeated in 2015’s Democratic mayoral primary before winning re-election that November.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who helped obtain the federal approvals to replace the drawbridge with a cheaper fixed bridge, offered a good campaign soundbite for Ganim on Friday.
“There is no more dedicated advocate for this project,” Blumenthal told the crowd. “When we stand here (for the groundbreaking) with shovels in our hands, it will be because Joe Ganim said, ‘We need to get this done.’”
Restoring the bridge is helpful for Ganim to secure votes on the East Side, a base of support for him in 2015. East Side Councilwoman Maria Valle was the first to speak Friday and said the new span will go a long way to helping to “rebuild” her economically challenged neighborhood.
Still, Valle was hesitant to claim success.
“I stand before you and wonder, ‘Is it gonna happen? Is it finally here?’” she said.
Unfinished projects, burgeoning scandal
Ganim could face such skepticism from voters citywide if other economic development projects he has championed do not move ahead.
A summer concert amphitheater, the renovation and reopening of a pair of historic downtown theaters and a new downtown ice skating facility are still in the “is it gonna happen?” stages.
The amphitheater that is expected to rise from the shell of Bridgeport’s recently shuttered minor league baseball stadium was supposed to open early this summer when first announced in 2017. That timeline has been pushed to later in the season or, potentially, 2020.
At least design and construction has begun on the concert venue. Exact Capital, the New York-based developers the Ganim administration tapped in 2017 to take on the downtown theaters just a few blocks from Congress Street, missed a Dec. 27 deadline to come up with $56 million in financing.
Exact Capital was granted a 30-day extension, which is up in a week.
Meanwhile, the two-rink “premiere hockey and ice skating training facility” that Ganim touted for downtown in mid-September has not even gotten as far as the theaters. That development deal has yet to be presented to the City Council, and some members have already questioned the concept.
Even if there is forward momentum on some or all of those, possible scandal looms.
Friday’s Congress Street Bridge festivities were held 24 hours after the government center was visited by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. FBI agents have opened a criminal probe into allegations that municipal employees sold scrap metal for cash and other claims about no-bid contracts made in an anonymous letter sent the City Council last fall.
Ganim’s first administration ended in 2003 with his conviction on corruption charges for running a pay-to-play operation while mayor. He spent seven years in federal prison. So seeking another term during a new FBI investigation is not a good look for Ganim, who in 2015 convinced voters to give him a second chance.
In response to the FBI’s visit Thursday, the mayor and Police Chief Armando Perez said they were the ones who months ago had forwarded the anonymous letter to federal authorities.
Where that investigation goes and its impact on Ganim’s re-election bid remains to be seen. There was no mob of out-of-town reporters Friday pelting the mayor with questions about scrap metal instead of new bridges.
And a similar criminal probe in Stamford a decade ago found no evidence that city’s employees kept any of the scrap metal proceeds for themselves, though three were temporarily suspended without pay.
Ganim seemed in a very upbeat mood Friday. While most of the attendees were bundled in winter coats, hats, scarves and gloves, Bridgeport’s mayor was comfortable withstanding the cold in just a suit.
He definitely faces re-election challenges. But Ganim has proven he wears resilience well.