Clean elections program could yet fund unclean candidate for governor

Typically when a candidate faces a denial of funding for their campaign under the state’s Citizens’ Election Program it involves a dispute over a missed deadline, or disagreement concerning the number of qualified donations, or other such technicalities.

But Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim is not typical and neither is the lawsuit filed by the exploratory committee he formed to consider a run for governor. The lawsuit challenges a state law withholding public financing from candidates convicted of a felony related to their public office.

Joe Ganim, should he run for governor, would be such a candidate.

Elected Bridgeport mayor in 1991, Ganim in time oversaw an administration that was up for sale. In 2003, a federal jury convicted Ganim of trading city business for cash and gifts. He served seven years in prison.

In 2015, saying he was a reformed man, Ganim made his comeback, defeating incumbent Democrat Bill Finch in the primary and winning handily in the general election.

Now he is thinking about running for governor. Under Connecticut’s law providing public financing for state campaigns, a candidate for governor can obtain a $1.35 million grant for a primary, $6.5 million for the general election. To qualify, the candidate must demonstrate broad support by raising $250,000 from individual donations no larger than $100.

Passed in the wake of the scandal that drove Gov. John G. Rowland from office and into prison for the first of two times (he’s back in the Big House), its intent was to address the corrupting influence of money in politics. It’s voluntary. A candidate is free to run the old-fashioned way — soliciting money from special interests.

Whether the program has been successful in its intent, particularly when it comes to the race for governor, is open to debate. But it remains in place and if Ganim runs, he needs the cash.

The problem for Ganim is that in 2013 the legislature passed a law prohibiting convicted corrupt politicians from qualifying. The legislature acted in response to the attempt by another crooked Bridgeport politician to regain office — former state Sen. Ernie Newton, convicted of corruption in 2005.

Unlike Ganim, Newton didn’t win.

In June, the State Elections Enforcement Commission, pointing to the 2013 law, ruled Ganim would not qualify for the program should he run for state office. Thus the lawsuit.

“If I run, I would want to participate in our landmark clean elections program and apply for a public campaign financing grant,” read the statement released by Ganim. “This is designed to reduce the influence of special interest money in our electoral process and I support it 100 percent.”

Now there’s some irony thicker than an early-morning fog in New London.

Ganim says the law is unconstitutional because it violates his right to free speech and equal protection under the law.

It is on that latter argument he may well prevail. State law does not prohibit those convicted of public corruption from running for office. Since lawmakers, in their wisdom, decided people such as Ganim have an equal right to run; it is hard to then justify treating them as a special, inferior class of candidate when it comes to public financing.

There was a time when I would have considered it absurd to even be writing about someone like Ganim running for governor. But then again, I thought it was absurd that the people of Bridgeport would send someone back to office who had conned them the last time he was behind the mayoral desk.

Hey, I once thought it was absurd that Donald Trump was running for president.

Maybe nothing is absurd when it comes to modern politics. Ganim’s counting on it.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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