Mayor Bill Finch is still the favorite to win the Democratic primary September 13 and another four-year term for mayor in the November general election. Could that change? Politics is a crazy business and anything can happen, but a new dynamic must occur for a challenger to submarine Finch based on the current field splitting the vote.
Three months from the primary, it’s time to take inventory. Finch got off to a bumpy start as mayor, raising taxes nearly 10 percent his first year after an outrageous promise as a candidate to cut taxes $600. Sometimes Bill’s tongue can get ahead of his brain and that was never more evident in the early days as mayor when he tried to cash both his mayor and state senate paychecks with a bunch of dubious excuses before giving up the senate job. In those early days he called library workers non-essential, spewed inflammatory statements about the University of Bridgeport and alienated, by design or not, several supporters from his 2007 election. He declared Trumbull, a town he had represented in the state senate, bucolic with no problems even though he must work with town officials on a host of regional issues. He didn’t call Trumbull bucolic with no problems when he sought Trumbull votes.
Finch is the classic legislative mind cast into a chief executive role. Some cannot make the adjustment and it took Finch more than half his term to feel relatively comfortable in the job. When Finch is on his game he looks good and sounds good. He has gotten much better at tempering remarks, leveraging relationships with former colleagues in the state legislature that aid the city budget, negotiating significant union concessions (although many city employees maintain he doesn’t fight fair), saying all the right things about Dannel Malloy who defeated Finch’s candidate for governor Ned Lamont in a primary on his way to the governor’s mansion. Finch has not disappeared during high-profile city events such as a downtown tornado strike, the tragic death of two city firefighters, a 2010 ballot shortage that made the city a national curiosity and enduring one of the most difficult winters in history. He even chased away a perp assaulting another man downtown.
Finch and his reelection team led by Chief of Staff Adam Wood have done an excellent job raising money and keeping most political supporters in line while starting the mayor on a baby-kissing tour of numerous city events. Finch enters an election year holding the line on taxes.
Finch has a major missing piece however: a major development he can call his own. OIB polling shows Finch is vulnerable to attacks on taxes and jobs if an opponent can craft the right contrast. Democratic voters are not confident about the direction of the city. The candidate who has done the best job so far contrasting Finch is Mary-Jane Foster, co-founder of the Bridgeport Bluefish, an executive at UB. Foster was a significant Finch financial supporter through the years and served as the chair of his mayoral transition team. They had a falling out over Finch’s strange cultish preoccupation with an arm of the Unification Church that rescued UB from closing 20 years ago. Finch claimed the university was run by a criminal enterprise despite no evidence that the Unification Church had inserted itself in school operations. The university has rebounded to be a major brain and economic force for the city.
The inspiration (along with her husband Jack McGregor) behind the ballpark and arena at Harbor Yard that created more than 100 jobs and generated community enthusiasm, a number of political operatives and anti-Finch Democratic voters had high hopes for a Foster candidacy. She has a face for television and voice for radio. Bridgeport has rarely had mayoral candidates that can put words into action when talking about job creation. The Foster campaign has dinged Finch on several issues including dubious promises he made as a candidate, borrowing to pay operating expenses, wiring contracts to lawyer friends in exchange for campaign cash, and implementing no meaningful jobs plan.
Foster is running closest to Finch in OIB polling (15 points behind in the latest tracking) by virtue of her jobs message, candidate contrast, paid radio campaign and community profile. But she’s had difficulty finding her way as a candidate and articulating where she wants to take the city.
Foster was also naive to think many things politically and financially would fall into place for her. Being a candidate is a grind. You grind it out to raise money, you grind it out to win support. To her credit, locked out by the business community supporting Finch, locked out by the party establishment supporting Finch, she has raised the most by far among Finch’s challengers, roughly $100,000 from a collection of contacts in the city and Fairfield County. But can she double that amount, at the very least, in three months to make a serious run at the mayoralty?
Although not independently wealthy, Foster has the financial ability to supplement her fundraising, as several Bridgeport mayoral candidates have done through the years. She seeks contributors to pony up, but she’s not willing to pony up her own money, not yet at least, a snicker that has not escaped potential supporters.
In addition, Foster’s press operation is weak. A serious campaign operation will kick out statements and news releases multiple times per week, aggressively working the media about issues. Her campaign has trouble kicking out a release a week. Working the press to complement the paid media operation is a key component of a winning strategy. Part of Foster’s campaign problem is that she has not yet landed a campaign manager who can filter staff strengths and help build community coalitions.
Former State Rep. Americo Santiago and former City Councilman Danny Martinez are two key operatives on the ground in her quest to build a primary-day turnout. She has other veteran campaign hands supporting her such as Andy Fardy, (aka “town committee” here on OIB). Primaries are different animals than general elections. Winning requires a surgical operation to identify your friends and drag them to the polls. Foster’s still in the game but she must improve as a candidate and have enough dough to compete to move the needle closer to Finch who’ll dump an enormous amount of campaign money starting July. The Foster campaign headquarters opening is Wednesday, 5:30 p.m. at 3768 Main Street.
When John Gomes landed Marilyn Moore (see previous post) as his campaign manager it signaled that he may stay in for the long haul. Gomes came to Bridgeport as a young immigrant from the Cape Verde Islands, speaks several languages, had a successful corporate marketing career and was named by Finch deputy chief administrative officer, in charge of the government-efficiency CitiStat Program. He owns the Red Rooster Deli off North Avenue.
Gomes and Finch had a falling-out over an interpretation of efficiency. Gomes says he was unable to implement government accountability reforms because Finch protected political sacred cows.
Gomes was the first to declare a public challenge to the Finch mayoralty. His closest adviser Carolanne Curry, a veteran political operative, was also let go by Finch from the CitiStat Program that Finch had so heralded. Curry knows campaign life and has been an invaluable adviser to Gomes. And now she has a sister in arms in Moore. As formidable as they could be together it won’t be enough to make Gomes the next mayor. He has not yet resonated in OIB polls, he lacks money and without loot it’s impossible to persuade voters why you’re better than the incumbent.
In addition, despite Moore’s earnest decision to support Gomes in part because she’d like to see a black candidate become mayor, that’s not a good enough message to win citywide. Gomes has a message problem. Urging voters to vote for Gomes to make history won’t work. Most electors vote on the future and opposition candidates must always explain why they should fire the incumbent and elect them. If it’s Gomes’ goal to powerwash the city political establishment and finish the job he claims Finch prevented him from doing, he must state that loud and clear.
Charlie Coviello, a realtor, is a veteran of several city elections for mayor having served in the administration of John Mandanici more than 30 years ago. Charlie’s a wonk who can gab all day about public policy. His closest adviser Barry “Spanky” Piesner also can spin yarns on policy. The last time Coviello had his name on the ballot for mayor in 2003 he finished dead last in a six-way Democratic primary won by John Fabrizi. In 2007 Coviello was a candidate for mayor before throwing his support to Finch over challenger Chris Caruso.
Many political operatives were certain Charlie had cut a deal for a city job with Finch beyond the campaign work he received. Charlie says he got screwed. Finch fans say Charlie’s delirious.
Bottom line for Coviello, nice guy, no money, no support base. What’s changed from 2003 and 2007?
What does this four-way field suggest? Finch, barring a new dynamic, is in good shape to win the primary. He’s a well-financed incumbent with a majority of political support. He has MOM–money, organization and message–on his side. In the current field configuration a splitting of the anti-vote, especially if Foster and Gomes cannot make a marriage, bodes well for Finch who should pull out the base Democratic incumbent vote. If the primary were held today it’s Finch, Foster, Gomes, Coviello.
Tuesday: what could change the dynamic.