Connecticut Politics Tarnished by Corruption
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
NPR's Mike Pesca has this look at a state trying to live up to the high standards claimed by its nickname.
MIKE PESCA: Actually, since former Connecticut gubernatorial candidate Bill Curry, in the minds of Connecticut citizens, the feeling is real and that's what makes it dangerous.
WILLIAM CURRY JR: Not only did no one see it coming, but they couldn't see it after it came. They couldn't see when it came right up and kissed them on the nose because it just wasn't part of our self-concept.
PESCA: Like the town where you never had to lock the doors, Connecticut was ripe to be robbed blind. Curry's been saying this for years. He said in his run for governor in 1994 and again in 2002 where each time he was defeated by John Rowland.
CURRY JR: I may be the only living American to lose two statewide elections to a multiple felon, and that is the kind of thing that makes you think.
PESCA: As for why there is so much corruption, much like state contracts in the Rowland era, there's plenty of blame to go around. Curry thinks the media abdicated their watchdog role. He believes cultural values are weak, how we prize private fortunes above public service. But mostly, Curry blames the central role of political donations in elections. And from this, Curry draws hope.
CURRY JR: We could end corruption if we really mean it. You don't have to change the basic character of the species in order to have less corruption. You just have to change the law.
PESCA: So Connecticut did. Andy Sauer is executive director of Common Cause Connecticut.
ANDY SAUER: The contact between those who would corrupt and those who have been corrupted started with a campaign contribution. We'd said that if Connecticut was really going to change its culture of corruption, it had to change the way campaigns are financed.
PESCA: So far, one election has been conducted under these rules to replace a representative who died in office. Jason Perillo won that race and opted into the Clean Election system but still remains a skeptic.
JASON PERILLO: I and I'm sure a lot of other people have some philosophical problems with the state of Connecticut paying for my balloons and my opponent's mini-orange footballs.
PESCA: Clean Election laws or not some politicians think they have a license to pilfer. Lenny Grimaldi has seen half firsthand. He was an adviser and friend to Joseph Ganim, wunderkind mayor of Connecticut's largest city, Bridgeport.
LEONARD GRIMALDI: Politicians can rationalize anything. When you have a feeling of self- entitlement. You know his attitude was I'm a mayor, I'm doing a great job, the people love me so why shouldn't I get a little piece?
PESCA: The piece set it up to a whole lot of money and a whole lot of jail time for the former mayor. Grimaldi himself served 10 months for his role on the scandal, but today Grimaldi is building his life back up. He even has a blog about Bridgeport politics, which benefits from his been-there-done-all-that insight. And Grimaldi says Connecticut politics are getting cleaner mostly because high-profile trials have sent a message.
GRIMALDI: I didn't have the guts to say no to a person I liked.
PESCA: Is that temptation came to you now in 2007? After the string of corruption, do you think you'd be able to say well, look at all this prosecution? I think it is stupid to take the money at this point.
GRIMALDI: I would run as far as I could. I mean, I wouldn't go anywhere near it.
PESCA: Prosecutions and election reform are big pieces, if you're gluing back together the cracked vase that is Connecticut's reputation. But Bill Curry says the dirty politicians will always find a home if voters don't demand better.
CURRY JR: It suggests that if you live in a nation of impelled shoppers, , you know, when everybody just has attention deficit disorder, you can send an entire generation of politicians to jail, and the very next generation goes ahead doing the same kinds of things.
PESCA: Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.
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