“Returning citizen navigator” Ernie Newton is back on the campaign trail trying to reclaim the East End City Council seat that launched his political career in 1981 leading to his ascension as head of the legislative body prior to his long run in Connecticut’s General Assembly. He received word he secured enough signatures from Democratic electors in the district to qualify for the September 12 primary challenging party endorsed incumbents Eneida Martinez and James Holloway, the longest-tenured council member.
Newton was forced from his State Senate seat in 2005 following his conviction on public corruption charges. Riding a redemption and opportunity message he made a near-dramatic return in 2012 losing a close State Senate primary as the party-endorsed candidate to Andres Ayala. Incumbent Ed Gomes ran a distant third but reclaimed the seat in a 2015 special election after Ayala resigned to become commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Ayala quit after one year following a number of nightmarish logistical issues in the department that created long lines and short tempers.
The math was a fit for Ayala, Newton and Gomes carving up the black vote and Ayala running up large margins in his heavily Latino State House district.
For Newton, this is his third crack at reclaiming an old seat since 2012. In 2014 he lost a primary for his former State House seat to Andre Baker. The aftermath of the 2012 State Senate primary, however, was controversial. The state charged Newton with falsifying $300 of campaign contributions to qualify for a public campaign grant under the state’s Citizens Election Program. He went to trial and was found guilty of lesser charges leading to a six-month sentence that he’s appealing. Newton says he was unfairly targeted by the state government. It chafes Newton that his past is brought up by media accounts, not voters.
“When I knock on doors,” says Newton “no one mentions the past–it’s you guys who bring it up–voters talk about the future.” And part of that future is preparing former offenders for work in his role with Career Resources including a recent jobs fair supported by area businesses. Newton says he’s putting words into action on the campaign trail, providing opportunities for the formerly incarcerated. There are many other issues as well, public safety, paving streets, new sidewalks, blight clearance and year-round grocery store in the food desert district.
Interestingly, one person who quietly brings up Newton’s past is East End District Leader Ralph Ford with whom Newton has had a long alliance. Ford did not cast an endorsement vote for Newton at the party convention last week, By the way Ford did not vote for Holloway either. Ford says Holloway serving 26 years is long enough.
Council challenges are generally done in pairs. The 10 council districts feature two members each. Newton, however, is running alone in his council quest. He had anticipated running with Martinez but at the last minute at last week’s party endorsement session she switched her support from Newton to Holloway, arguing Holloway had more committee support. The town committee endorsement has been largely meaningless in recent years with lack of party discipline and electors forging an independent streak against the establishment.
Despite his recent state legislative losses, Newton still projects a political profile. He’s a member of the Bridgeport Democratic Town Committee and something more prestigious, a member of the Democratic State Central Committee that conducts party business and chooses a state chair.
Still, Newton has his eyes on his old council seat. And with Tom McCarthy announcing he’ll not seek another term, the City Council presidency will become a flashpoint come December.
Newton will spend the next six weeks knocking on doors, making his pitch and identifying supporters to drag to the September 12 primary polling places, Dunbar and Harding. Martinez and Holloway running on the same line and Newton on his own line may have some additional company. East End activist Wanda Simmons is also circulating petition sheets for a primary run. The primary decides this contest. The two with the most votes go on to the general election, generally a foregone conclusion in the heavily Democratic district.
Elections officials are reviewing a logjam of petition sheets that could lead to nine primaries in ten council districts. Several other council challengers such as Pete Spain and Christina Smith in the 130th District and incumbent council members Anthony Paoletto and Nessah Smith in the 138th have been notified they’ve qualified for primaries. More to come.
After all, primaries are the favorite game in town.