Mayor who won back office after prison reflects on the year

Markets Associated Press

It appears life is back to normal for Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, a year after he reclaimed the city's top office in a stunning comeback from his seven-year prison stint for public corruption.

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The Democrat sits behind his old desk again. The antique maps of Connecticut's largest city that previously adorned his office are back on the walls. The escalators in the government center, which had been turned off by Ganim's predecessor to conserve energy, are whirring once again in fulfillment of a campaign promise.

And despite the fact few Democratic politicians were willing to publicly support him in the 2015 election, Ganim told The Associated Press he has been pleased by the positive reception he has received over the past year from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, members of the state's congressional delegation and fellow municipal leaders.

"It's funny how things change at 8:05 election night. The whole world changed," he said, adding how it's been "business as usual, in a positive way" between him and other politicians.

"If there were any other feelings or expectations, I tip my hat to them and I hope they tip their hat to me. It's just been like, 'What do we need to get this done on every level?'" Ganim said, noting how Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly voted in the last legislative session to allow Bridgeport to restructure payments to city employee pension funds. The vote came as Ganim faced a $20 million deficit.

Malloy later signed the bill into law.

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Ganim, 57, surprised many when he defeated Mayor Bill Finch and others to eventually win back his old office. The victory came just five years after he was released from prison time served for steering city contracts in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in expensive wine, custom clothes, cash and home improvements.

But Ganim was able to successfully tap into the nostalgia for his old days in office, when he ran the city from 1991 to 2003, and a willingness by voters to give him a second chance. He ran on a platform of lower local taxes, cleaner streets, more employment opportunities and more police on the beat.

A year later, Ganim has had some successes. The $20 million deficit in the city's total $550 million budget has been addressed while bond rating agencies have maintained Bridgeport's "A'' rating. While he pledged to hire 100 more police, 27 are now on the streets. The remainder will be hired and trained over the next year.

Steve Lafleur, a Bridgeport-based contractor working on a downtown renovation project, credited Ganim with an influx of construction jobs as various economic redevelopment projects take shape.

"There wasn't any jobs. You had to go to Stamford. That's where all the projects were. I was in Stamford for the last four years," he said. "This is the first time I've been in Bridgeport, close."

But not everyone is happy with Ganim. In July, he drew the ire of hundreds of property taxpayers, many from the wealthier Black Rock neighborhood, who were upset to learn their already high tax bills were climbing by thousands of dollars. Some noted how Ganim posted signs during the campaign that read: "Stop Raising Taxes." They now feel betrayed.

"I not only believed in you, I believed you," 79-year-old resident Aida Calandrelli-Longo told the mayor. She said the tax bill on her home jumped from $2,000 to $15,700.

Ganim blames the tax increases on the revaluation of property, something the General Assembly had allowed Bridgeport to delay since 2008. During that time, the city's grand list shrank by about $1 billion.

Ganim noted, however, more than half of Bridgeport's residential taxpayers saw a decrease in their taxes.

"I said that I would work to reduce the tax burden on residential homeowners," he said. "Having done this job before, that's as much as I would go out on the limb on. We certainly did that. Will I get credit for it not? That's going to be something decided in the future."