BRIDGEPORT, CONN. — Joseph P. Ganim, the mayor of Connecticut’s largest city, is selling a message of imperfection, but also redemption.
He is the embodiment of the second chance: After serving as Bridgeport’s mayor in the 1990s and early 2000s, Mr. Ganim, a Democrat, was convicted on multiple charges of corruption and sent to federal prison. Seven years later, he emerged from his “time away,” as he calls it, a changed man.
He returned to City Hall as mayor in 2015, vowing to make his mayoral redux squeaky clean — even hiring, as a senior adviser, the F.B.I. agent who was a key member of the prosecution team that convicted him.
Now, Mr. Ganim is hoping to pull off an even more improbable comeback: He is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor amid a crowded field of candidates bidding to replace the Democratic two-term governor, Dannel P. Malloy, who is not seeking re-election.
Mr. Ganim believes that his life experience will resonate with voters across the state, and not only in cities like Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven that are troubled by crime, unemployment and poverty.
“There are people in every pocket of Connecticut who are struggling,” he said. “I’m ‘second chance.’ But there are people who are still looking for their first chance. One thing I do bring — imperfect as I might be — is the experience of solving problems in a public-sector environment.”
Not everyone thinks that Mr. Ganim would be an ideal nominee; some Democratic leaders fear that his criminal background could damage their party’s chance of victory in November, even when a huge Democratic turnout, fueled by anti-Trump vitriol, is expected in a state where Democrats easily outnumber Republicans.
“He is the guy who did wrong, came back and did right, and now wants to be redeemed, which is a very good story line,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic political consultant who is not involved in the governor’s race. “But he is also the one Democrat whom the Republicans might actually be able to beat come the fall. That’s what the panic is about.”
Yet others believe that Mr. Ganim, 58, will do well at the party’s nominating convention this spring. They cite the breadth of his delegate support in Bridgeport, a gritty coastal city of 150,000 where he has earned praise for attracting development, stabilizing finances and bolstering the police.
Even if Mr. Ganim does not win the party’s nomination, which requires more than 50 percent of the delegate vote, he could garner the 15 percent needed for a spot on the primary ballot. Failing that, he would have to obtain thousands of petition signatures, something he pledges to do.
“Democrats are saying, ‘Holy cow, this can’t happen,’ ” said Peter Spain, a Democratic member of Bridgeport’s City Council and a longtime critic of Mr. Ganim. “It’s wrong for someone who totally betrayed the public trust to come back and shrug it off and act like the people of Bridgeport forgave him.”
Many in Bridgeport did forgive him, however. In 2015, Mr. Ganim managed to defeat the incumbent mayor, Bill Finch, in the Democratic primary and went on to beat
his closest opponent in the general election by two-to-one.
That same year, Bridgeport conducted a citywide tax reassessment that revealed a sobering trend. The value of Bridgeport’s taxable property had fallen by a staggering $1 billion, to $6 billion. That — coupled with a $20 million budget deficit left by the previous administration — prompted the city to raise the effective tax rate on properties by nearly 29 percent.
As he has traveled the state in recent months, Mr. Ganim said he found that residents do not necessarily share his critics’ view that his message only plays in the state’s urban centers. “They have a viewpoint that my candidacy may sell in Bridgeport, but it won’t in Mayberry,” he said, referring to the 1960s sitcom “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Mr. Ganim said he has been welcomed by many in the state’s more affluent sections, noting that he, too, is a product of the suburbs, hailing from a well-to-do family that moved to Easton from Bridgeport when he was a young teenager. “It’s not like I’m an alien to the suburbs, and my children live there,” said Mr. Ganim, who is divorced.
In a field of candidates short on household names, Mr. Ganim’s name recognition could, in some strange way, actually help him. Many voters outside the Bridgeport area are unaware of his corruption conviction, but might recognize his name just the same.
Some 20 candidates from the Republican and Democratic Parties have expressed an interest in running for governor.
On the Democratic side, they include Susan Bysiewicz, a former secretary of state; Jonathan A. Harris, former commissioner of the state consumer protection department; Luke Bronin, the mayor of Hartford who was a Rhodes scholar and a treasury official under President Obama, and Ned Lamont, a prominent businessman and perennial candidate.
On the Republican side, candidates include Mark D. Boughton, mayor of Danbury; Prasad Srinivasan, a physician and member of the state House of Representatives; Mike Handler, chief financial officer for the city of Stamford, and David M. Walker, former comptroller general of the United States.
According to a political news program
on Connecticut Public Radio, an internal poll by one of the Democratic challengers showed Mr. Ganim a strong second after Ms. Bysiewicz.
His criminal past, however, is not Mr. Ganim’s only obstacle; last November, a federal judge dealt a blow
to Mr. Ganim’s campaign by affirming a state law that prevents those convicted of corruption from accessing state campaign funds. (Mr. Ganim had challenged the law on the grounds that it violated his constitutional rights.)
Mr. Ganim had raised a total of $200,000, mostly from small fund-raisers like one on Friday at a cigar lounge in Bridgeport, as of campaign filings through the end of 2017.
By contrast, several Republican candidates, including Mr. Boughton and Mr. Walker, have already achieved the $250,000 donation threshold (with contributions of less than $100 each), necessary to qualify for millions in grants through Connecticut’s campaign-financing system. Another Republican, David Stemerman, a Greenwich resident who made his money in hedge funds, had more than $1.5 million in his war chest.
Among Democrats, Ms. Bysiewicz had raised just over $140,000, and Mr. Bronin, who began his campaign fund-raising late last year, raised $113,000 between Nov. 27 and Dec. 31.
No matter who wins the Democratic primary, Republicans still see the governorship as winnable, both because of Mr. Malloy’s status, according to a recent survey
, as the least popular governor in the nation
, and past trends in the state’s elections.
“This isn’t a horse race, it’s a stampede,” said William F. B. O’Reilly, a Republican consultant. “Republicans should have no business running in this political environment, but outgoing Governor Malloy’s unpopular tax hikes should make the race competitive.”
Ronald Schurin, an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, said that even with Democratic voters expected to flock to the polls because of their anger toward President Trump, they had a history of splitting their votes between members of both major parties in Connecticut.
“Even while we were electing Bill Clinton president, we were voting for John Rowland, a Republican, for governor,” said Professor Schurin, who teaches a course on state politics.
As for Mr. Ganim’s chances in the race, Professor Schurin said he doubted the mayor would win the party’s endorsement, given the “huge mountain to climb” in the general election. “It’s the most improbable scenario I could imagine,” he said. “But then I never thought Trump would be elected president.”