The news coming out of Hartford Superior Court the other day wasn’t all bad for former State Senator Ernie Newton. The judge hearing the state criminal complaint against Newton, alleging he falsified $500 in campaign donations to trigger an $80,000 public grant for his State Senate race two years ago, didn’t throw out the case as Newton had hoped, but she sent a clear message to state prosecutors: your case is thin. Newton is now gearing up for what likely will be a run for his old State House seat. And he will be the favorite to win.
Bridgeport politics in general and Newton in particular can be oddities to folks outside of the city (some within the city) who shake their heads in amazement. How can a pol who served several years in the federal joint on corruption charges and awaiting a potential trial in a state criminal matter, still be in play to win office?
Several factors apply to the viability of a candidate: geography, voter demographics, the competition and neighborhood identity. Newton’s flamboyance may not play well in several city neighborhoods, but the self-proclaimed Moses of his peeps plays just fine in the East End, where he’s built decades of goodwill in a heavy African American neighborhood. He served them on the City Council, he served them in the State House, he represented them in the State Senate. And he’s still accessible to his constituency, even though not a member of the legislature since 2005.
Newton came darn close to winning his old State Senate seat in 2012 that is the subject of this state criminal case. He finished second to Andres Ayala with incumbent Ed Gomes finishing third in the August primary. Newton insists had Gomes not been in the race, he’d have won without the splitting of black votes. Where did Newton perform best in that primary? Yup, his East End voting base. He won the two precincts, Dunbar and Harding, that make up the majority vote in the State House seat he once occupied. And as he sets his sights on his old State House seat, the incumbent Don Clemons will need to mount a mighty effort to hold back Newton in an August primary.
The state case against Newton is the first of its kind brought by prosecutors under the state’s public financing system that was championed by former Democratic State Rep. Chris Caruso following the corruption conviction of Republican Governor John Rowland nearly 10 years ago. State charges against Newton do not allege he used public money for personal use, but he falsified donations to advance public campaign funds to finance his race. The case centers on several disgruntled campaign workers who claim they were urged by Newton to falsify campaign donations that put him over the top to qualify for public dough. The state program requires candidates for State Senate to raise $15,000 in donations of $100 and less to qualify for a larger pot of campaign money.
Newton’s lawyer argues whatever issue the State Election Enforcement Commission had with Newton’s application for a grant would normally be handled civilly. They wanted Ernie Newton’s pelt. The credibility of state witnesses will be key if this case goes to trial. The judge explained the other day prosecutors have a high burden of proof for conviction based on what the state has disclosed.
Meanwhile East End District Leader Ralph Ford, who was also in the news this week following paid suspension from his state job with the department of mental health, appears to control the endorsement for the 124thth District State House seat occupied by Clemons. Ford and Newton are aligned politically.
The path to Newton’s return to the General Assembly is much smoother running for his old State House seat in his political base. He faces much more difficult odds challenging Ayala in a State Senate district that covers roughly two thirds of the city.
Newton running for legislative office raises a question in light of his pending trial: will he raise money through the state’s voluntary public financing system? Is it worth the SEEC scrutiny? Will the commission even allow his participation in the program with a case pending? He’d need to raise $5,000 in small donations to receive a $25,000 grant. The good news for Newton is he’ll not need a lot of money to wage a competitive race for State House. He can raise it the old-fashioned way.