Mayor Bill Finch has just about reached his first 18 months in office. Where did the time go?
Former Mayor John Fabrizi would love to fast forward to 2011, the next mayoral cycle, to regain his job. But can he? That raises another question: what kind of shape is Finch in? Much better than a year ago when he got off to such a poor start that I had wondered if it was over before it began. But Finch has grown into the job to now make reelection–if not a lock–a decent possibility. It probably all depends on his 2010 budget and the national economy. In the old days, before voters approved a four-year term 10 years ago, Finch would now be in the thick of a reelection battle.
Finch never aspired to the city’s mayoralty. When Bill and I would sit around to reminisce about the future he saw himself more cut out for Connecticut secretary of state, the office of voter registration and voter education, blah, blah, the sappy Kennedy-inspired side of Bill. Full disclosure: I managed his winning race for state senate that would eventually put him into position for the mayoralty.
When Fabs faltered in 2007–following revelations of substance abuse and testifying in court on behalf of a sexual offender who was his son’s friend–Democratic party leaders were terrified turning the city over to anti-establishment State Rep. Christopher Caruso. Party bosses such as John Stafstrom and Tom McCarthy looked around for someone that could defeat Caruso in a primary.
Well, part of the reason was that Caruso would power wash them and their jobs into the Pequonnock River. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, just the way politics go.
So they said here’s our boy Bill who took the plunge and won a squeaker, promising to cut taxes $600 yadda, yadda, yadda. But the latest budget cycle, if not perfect, has helped to steady the ship that was reeling following a hefty tax increase last year.
What does it take to get reelected? First a little mayoral history. Yeah, grab a cup of joe. This post is a little long for me.
Jasper McLevy, the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history, was chief executive from 1933-57. He came into office riding the sins of both the Democratic and Republican parties caught up in a series of bridge scandals and financial improprieties. McLevy, a roofer by trade, was admired by the city’s working class for his honesty and frugality and Civil Service initiative to clean up government. Jasper was so cheap, if admired, every time he’d pinch a penny poor Abe Lincoln turned into a soprano.
But Jasper could be frugal to a fault. He’d often reject state and federal urban renewal dollars claiming when the money runs out the city would be stuck with the future maintenance. McLevy blew out his opponents through the war years and didn’t have a challenge until a relatively young lawyer Sam Tedesco challenged Jasper in 1955. The race was close. It appeared that McLevy’s biggest problem was outliving his voter base. The folks that had voted for the septuagenarian were ending up on the obit page.
In 1957, Sam broke through, ending the McLevy era. Sam was a hermit after leaving office, but he consented to an interview with me 20 years after he left the mayoralty for my book Only In Bridgeport.
State Street downtown became the centerpiece of his urban renewal plans, and Sam was like a human bulldozer. If Sam could knock it down, he would, including housing, to make way for Lafayette Plaza Shopping Center (now home to Housatonic Community College … when Trumbull Shopping Park opened it helped to kill the downtown shopping, but that’s another story.)
Sam was also something of a land baron, and it had some wondering if Sam had pushed all this development for financial gain. Eight schools were built under Tedesco including a new Central High School. He also transferred City Hall from the building on McLevy Green on State Street to the old Central High School on Lyon Terrace. Problem for Sam and the city: no housing downtown to support the businesses. After eight years in office, Sam left to accept a state judgeship.
Sam’s nice-guy City Attorney Hugh Curran followed him as mayor. Hugh, as well as as Sam, spoke about McLevy’s inaction toward city development as Bridgeport, which had thrived during the war years, had difficulty with post-war adjustments.
The factories that had supported tens of thousands were cutting back and some of them began moving to the midwest to be closer to the country’s auto center and others began subbing out work to cheaper labor forces in the south while Japan’s technological advances left Bridgeport’s factory equipment antiquated. And then Curran, facing a financial calamity, did the unthinkable: he instituted a mini-tax on the electorate and voters went berserk.
It was the best thing that happened to the Republican Party which had not had one of their own as mayor in more than 40 years. Nick Panuzio, a rotund administrator at the University of Bridgeport with a gift for oration, defeated Hugh by nine measly votes. Nick didn’t waste much time locking up his plans for reelection. He gifted police and fire a 20-and-out pension plan that created a heavy burden on taxpayers. Those were the days when the city had a residency requirement and uniformed services were a force.
Bill Mullane, the Democrat running against Nick in 1973, warned that the bomb ticking in the budget was Nick’s deal with the unions. Police and fire support was enough to carry Nick through to reelection. Nick tried to leverage his reelection as GOP mayor of an urban area into the gubernatorial nomination for governor in 1974. While he had significant party support, Nick game up short at the nominating convention.
Sixty days before his mayoral term expired Nick vacated office for a job in the Ford administration which he cleverly parlayed into a successful political consulting career. GOP Common Council president (today it’s called City Council) Bill Seres filled out the remainder of Nick’s term.
Next up, in 1975, John Mandanici, a fire-breathing sweet-and-sour Democrat, the first mayor I covered as a young reporter with the Telegram, predecessor to the Connecticut Post. Mandy, as city clerk, challenged Democratic-endorsed Mullane and defeated him in a primary and won the general election.
“Now, you listen to me you little bastard,” he growled at me from across his desk, “this is how you’re going to write this story.” Jesus, I was terrified. Mandy had hired a number of young guns which became known as the Kiddie Corps and I would rely on administration officials such as Tom Bucci, David Dunn and Tom Flynn to learn the way the city operated.
To Mandy’s credit, he successfully renegotiated the 20-and-out uniformed retirement provision back to 25 years. He was a hoot to cover for his explosive personality and his my-way politics. Mandy’s last term was soiled by a federal investigation that won 18 or so convictions for public corruption of administration hands. The feds never actually nailed Mandy who also had trouble getting along with black political leaders, and this was part of his undoing, plus he tried to force a pay raise through the council. Finesse was not a Mandy strength, and young council members such as Tom Mulligan opposed the raise.
Mandy also picked a fight with the nicest lady in city politics Margaret Morton who promptly became the first black woman to serve in the Connecticut State Senate, defeating veteran pol Sal Depiano in a primary. Margaret opened the door for Charlie Tisdale, who would emerge as the single greatest electoral force in the city. Charlie came up short in a primary against Mandy in 1981, but Mandy and Charlie could not make peace. In fact, Mandy told Charlie to kiss off.
The election was punctuated by mob hits, car fire bombings and indictments. Mandy wore a bulletproof vest. It was nuts.
Do you know whom the heavily minority East End voted for in 1981? The Republican candidate Lenny Paoletta. Lenny won the election by 64 votes. Paoletta, handsome, mentally tough, an indomitable personality, was outstanding at pitching the value of the state’s largest city to its suburban neighbors. Bridgeport, he said, is the locomotive leading the county.
Lenny won reelection in another crazy campaign cycle that also featured Tisdale, winner of the Democratic primary, and Mandy, as an independent candidate, on the ballot. Mandy got 10,000 votes as a third-party candidate. But Lenny and Tizzy received 16,000 and 15,000 votes respectively. Turnout was 70 percent. We’ll never see that again.
Lenny got off track when he picked a fight with the city’s feared and revered top cop Joe Walsh shortly after the election. Lenny thought Joe was mired in the old ways of law enforcement. Lenny and his GOP controlled Police Board canned Joe, but Civil Service Joe was reinstated by the court for no just cause.
Lenny also didn’t have a lot of patience for the city’s neanderthal City Charter, especially for things that required Common Council approval. Lenny bypassed the council, but young attorney Tom Bucci was there to take him to court. Lenny’s budgets and tax increases had also caught up with him. Bucci blew him out in the general election in 1985 in what would become my first active race.
Bucci hired me as his administrative aide, and immediately Bucci set out to settle union contracts that Paoletta had not resolved. Bucci said the city needed labor peace and rewarded unions increases of five, six, seven percent, to the protestations of his labor negotiator David Dunn who warned it would break the bank.
Well, it broke the bank, but it was not all Bucci’s fault. Both Mandanici and Paoletta had set tax collection rates at 97 and 98 percent, Bucci as well, while city tax collections were several points below that, leading to a massive fund balance deficit.
Bucci needed a financial bailout and as a result the state formed the Bridgeport Financial Review Board to take took control of finances and requiring that tax collection rates be the average of the last three years.
Enter Mary Moran, a fresh-faced Republican and gifted public speaker. She defeated Paoletta in a primary and then Bucci in the 1989 general election becoming the first female mayor in history. Mary never seemed to gain her footing and fought with the review board. Facing a tax increase in an election year, she plunged Bridgeport into federal bankruptcy court hoping to obliterate union contracts and give the city a fresh start.
In 1991, the city’s crime rate had also reached catastrophic proportions, experiencing inner-city drug wars tearing apart neighborhoods that led to more than a murder per week. Things were so bad that the Democratic party had trouble finding a seasoned establishment pol for mayor to take on the job for $52k a year.
Joe Ganim, 31 years old, who’s father George had run for mayor as a Republican some 30 years prior, stepped up. Joe ran for state representative in 1988 and lost, ran for mayor in a Dem primary 1989 and finished third.
Meanwhile a federal bankruptcy judge ruled the city was not insolvent. Moran appealed so the city was literally in bankruptcy court when Ganim defeated Moran in November 1991. Ganim used the bankruptcy withdrawal as leverage to achieve the union concessions Moran could not.
He also received a lot of financial help from Gov. Lowell Weicker. Gambling money, a state purchase of Beardsley Park and zoo infused the city with new dollars. Weicker built a new Housatonic Community College and relocated the regional state police barracks downtown to beef up real and imagined security.
Ganim was strong fiscally, with solid department heads. Within four years the financial review board was gone … 10 straight balanced budgets without a tax increase. The city built a ballpark and an arena. Joe became a statewide force. But he got greedy, ceding an enormous amount of power and authority to a precocious Paul Pinto who became his shakedown artist. As a result, a lot of folks, including me, made idiotic decisions.
The feds were all over it. Joe was charged in 2001, went to trial in 2003 and lost. In my book, Joe was the most effective post-McLevy mayor. Greed got in the way.
Johnny Fabs, as City Council President, took over, won reelection November 2003 and left office in 2007 under pressure from party leaders fearful of Caruso.
So how does Finch position himself for reelection? Well, campaign money helps and he already has $100k in the bank, but key to Finch is next year’s budget with the hope the economy turns around. He also needs an economic development project he can call his own.
Will Fabs run? Depends if Finch is hurting. Is Caruso still a threat? Yup, because he’s super popular in his legislative district which provides him an instant base of support. City Councilman Carlos Silva is taking another look at challenge Caruso in a Democratic primary for 2010. If Carlos can make a credible run, it might give Caruso some pause after losing two races for mayor.
Will someone else step up? Depends. Politics is a game of timing, and often unpredictable. Stay tuned.
News releases from Finch
Bridgeport Receives $1.2 Million from EPA for Brownfield Cleanup
BRIDGEPORT, CT (May 15, 2009) – The City of Bridgeport and the Bridgeport Housing Authority today were granted a total $1.2 million from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the cleanup of brownfields – properties contaminated by various hazardous chemicals – that exist throughout the City.
“The brownfield contamination of Bridgeport is extensive. It presents potential harm to our residents and threatens our ability to redevelop these former industrial sites,” Mayor Bill Finch said at a news conference in Bristol where the EPA announced similar grants to communities throughout Connecticut. “I would like to thank the EPA for helping us take the next step towards cleaning up this mess. It’s in the best interest of the health of our residents and the future of our City.”
Specifically, the EPA awarded the Bridgeport Housing Authority a $200,000 grant to clean up the Park City Apartments/Garden Street Lot at 127 Garden St. Since the 1930s, the site has had a variety of uses, including an ice cream company, truck storage garage, and a lumber yard. Grant funds also will be used to monitor the health of neighborhood residents and support community involvement activities.
The City of Bridgeport, meanwhile, was awarded $1 million for a brownfields revolving loan fund grant. It will be used to help clean up some of the 411 brownfield sites in Bridgeport ranging in size from less than a quarter acre to more than 40 acres.
“Bridgeport has been able to conduct assessment, clean up or develop some of the most contaminated properties, such as the former Chrome Engineering & Pacelli Trucking sites, the ‘Mt. Trashmore’ illegal scrap yard, the Cartec and Derecktor Shipyard sites, and the 16-acre Steel Point peninsula,” said Mayor Finch . “But hundreds more brownfields remain unremediated. This revolving loan program will help us address that serious issue.”
He noted that Bridgeport’s successes have developed a pipeline of developers interested in applying for the revolving loans and subgrants for various cleanup and development projects.
Some of the properties being targeted for the program are:
· The Automatic Plating Co.
· The City’s Health Department at 752 East Main St.
· A vacant 1900s 180,000 square-foot industrial mill at Cherry/Hancock/Railroad Avenue.
· The vacant Bassick Industrial Tower at Railroad and Howard Avenues.
· The United Pattern Industrial Site.
· The former Dictaphone site, and
· The former Cornwall & Patterson Manufacturing facility.
“We thank the EPA and the federal government for coming to our aid,” said Mayor Finch. “With this program we will make a substantial dent in the remediation of Bridgeport
Company Disqualification Demonstrates City’s Resolve, Mayor Says
Mayor Bill Finch today said that the recent disqualification of DME Construction Associates, Inc., from doing business with Bridgeport demonstrates the City’s resolve to make sure companies seeking City contracts follow both the letter and the spirit of the law.
“It is unconscionable that any company would try to skirt our ordinances or state law in order to obtain a contract with the City,” said Mayor Finch. “We will not tolerate it.”
The disqualification of DME Construction is the most recent of 15 similar actions taken by the City since 2002. Other enforcement actions the City has used include penalties such as holding back payments and disqualifying bids.
This disqualification is the result of a hearing concerning DME’s alleged violation of a number of city ordinances relating to the use of minority-owned businesses on City projects, specifically a contract for the replacement of the roofs of the Board of Education Administration Building and Sheridan School.
The allegations in the hearing were that DME submitted higher amounts on the contract compliance forms for minority-owned contractors that were to be utilized in order to be awarded the project. Also, one of the minority contractors identified by DME to be used on the project was not used at all. And in another instance, a subcontractor who was to receive a specific amount received a lesser sum than previously submitted.
The allegations also included a charge that DME violated the Prevailing Wage Law that the contract required the company to adhere to. DME was ordered to pay $4,500 to the City because of this violation.
DME has been disqualified from doing business with the City of Bridgeport for 18 months when the Prevailing Wage Violation Investigation was concluded.