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An ex-convict could be elected mayor when voters in Bridgeport, Conn., head to the polls on Tuesday - note that's Connecticut not Illinois. The city's former Mayor Joe Ganim spent seven years in a federal prison for corruption. Now he's staging a dramatic comeback. He won the city's Democratic primary against a two-term incumbent last month. Patrick Skahill reports from member station WNPR.
PATRICK SKAHILL, BYLINE: Maximino Medina Jr. says there's one question he keeps getting asked.
MAXIMINO MEDINA: What the hell is going on in Bridgeport with this Ganim nonsense?
SKAHILL: Medina's a lawyer in private practice now. But for 16 years, he served on Bridgeport's Board of Education. Part of that time was under the administration of then Mayor Joe Ganim. Ganim was elected in the early '90s, but his career suddenly ground to a halt in 2003. He got seven years in federal prison for awarding city contracts in exchange for things like expensive clothes, wine and cash. Now Ganim's back in Bridgeport, and he says he's looking for a second chance.
JOE GANIM: And it's a second chance city if you end up going out and talking to people.
SKAHILL: And Ganim is seizing on that idea with an aggressive boots-on-the-ground campaign. On a late afternoon, just days before the election, Ganim pulls up outside a school in a black SUV. He gets out, quickly looks around and even though the parking lot is practically deserted, hones in on one woman. Immediately he starts campaigning, reminding her to vote.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How you doing, Joe?
GANIM: Picking up?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Granddaughter.
GANIM: Listen, don't forget Tuesday.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, come on. You think I'm going to forget?
GANIM: Thank you. Thank you.
ERNIE NEWTON: It's like he's a star. I mean, people want to take a picture. People want to be seen with him. They're honking their horns. They are happy to see him back.
SKAHILL: That's Ernie Newton, a former Bridgeport state senator and, like Ganim, a convicted felon. Charges of bribery, tax evasion and mail fraud sent Newton to prison for nearly five years. He served part of his sentence with Joe Ganim at Fort Dix prison in New Jersey. Newton says Ganim's political foes have spent too much time attacking the ex-mayor's past crimes, a message he says might not play as well in a place that's seen harder times.
NEWTON: Bridgeport is a place of people who have made mistakes - children who have been to prison, husbands who have been to prison - that need second chances.
SKAHILL: When it comes to Ganim's second chance, his main challenger, Mary-Jane Foster doesn't want him to have it. Here she is at a recent debate.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARY-JANE FOSTER: We are only beginning to come back from the corruption of the past. Bridgeport is finally moving forward. We cannot afford to become the laughingstock of the nation.
SKAHILL: Foster's own candidacy has been complicated. She lost to Ganim by a wide margin in Bridgeport's Democratic primary. She then dropped off the ballot only to re-enter the race as a petitioning candidate when incumbent Mayor Bill Finch didn't file the appropriate paperwork to run himself. At Seaside Park in Bridgeport, resident Phil Soltero says he believes in second chances.
PHIL SOLTERO: You know, we all make mistakes in life, and I guess he feels that he is the best candidate. And it looks like - that the voters in the Democratic Party also thought that, too, so he's got a backing.
SKAHILL: Not only Ganim sees Bridgeport as a second chance city, two other petitioning candidates in the race for mayor have criminal records. But on Tuesday, the main question is this - will voters be forgiving enough to give Joe Ganim another shot at being mayor? For NPR News, I'm Patrick Skahill in Hartford.
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