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Politics & Government

Democratic Mayoral Primary In Bridgeport, Conn., Expected To Be Competitive

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

I'm Steve Inskeep, with the latest entry in an American tradition. It's the tradition of American politicians who come out of prison and run for mayor.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It worked for Mayor James Michael Curley of Boston.

INSKEEP: It worked for Mayor Marion Barry of Washington. Now comes the opportunity for an ex-mayor of Bridgeport, Conn. who wants the job again.

GREENE: He's one of the challengers in the Democratic primary. Diane Orson of our member station WNPR begins this story with the incumbent fighting for his job.

DIANE ORSON, BYLINE: Head down Route 95 toward Connecticut's Gold Coast, and you pass through Bridgeport, where the view from the highway is not so good. Once a thriving factory town, the state's largest city looks now like a postcard of urban decay. But Mayor Bill Finch says Bridgeport's mood is optimistic.

BILL FINCH: All of the garbage that you see, those empty and abandoned buildings, all those have been bought. It's gotten better in the last eight years. And with four more years, it's going to get better.

ORSON: Finch says he wants another term as mayor to move forward economic development projects long sidelined by scandals and corruption. In fact, Bridgeport's political history reads like a bio of its most famous resident, circus man P.T. Barnum. There was the mayor who admitted he used cocaine while in office. And he'd taken over from the charismatic Joe Ganim, who ran Bridgeport for 11 years 'til he was convicted of steering city contracts in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in wine, clothes, cash and home improvements. He spent seven years in prison. Now he's back and says this time around, he's committed to transparency in city hall.

JOE GANIM: Why? 'Cause we know how mistakes can be made. I made them. I've paid for them.

ORSON: Businesswoman Mary-Jane Foster is the third candidate in the race. She's best known as co-founder of the minor league baseball team, the Bridgeport Bluefish.

MARY-JANE FOSTER: It's time for a change. I frankly think it's time for a woman to run this city.

LENNIE GRIMALDI: There are people from outside of Bridgeport who look at this race and go, why is it close?

ORSON: Lennie Grimaldi is in a unique position to answer that. He's worked for all three candidates. He was a consultant for Foster and, as a political strategist, ran races for both Finch and Ganim.

GRIMALDI: Full disclosure, I was Joe Ganim's campaign manager. I made my share of bad decisions and spent, you know, 10 months in the joint because of it.

ORSON: Now Grimaldi runs a respected online news site called Only in Bridgeport.

GRIMALDI: From every measure of progress that you can examine, this race really shouldn't be close. But when you scratch the surface of that progress, you have all these underlying issues that come cascading out.

ORSON: Issues like public safety. Overall crime in Bridgeport is down, but lately there's been a surge in violent crime. Ganim's promise to increase police staffing levels helped earn the former felon the endorsement of the city's police union. And Grimaldi points to an unlikely Ganim supporter.

GRIMALDI: The FBI agent that investigated Joe Ganim is supporting him. People question, you know, how could he endorse the guy he locked up? Well, he's out there saying he believes in second chances.

ORSON: And that's a message people here connect with. Resident Cal Luongo is out for a jog in Seaside Park.

CAL LUONGO: You know, I know there's a lot of talk about Ganim. However, when he was mayor before the corruption, I think he did a fine job for Bridgeport. And I strongly believe that everybody needs a second chance.

ORSON: There have been no real polls on the mayoral race. But the Democratic primary has broken spending records. Bridgeport's a heavily Democratic city. And the winner typically goes on to become the city's next mayor. For NPR News, I'm Diane Orson in Bridgeport. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.