On this July 4th weekend we salute the fireworks at the July 1989 Democratic Town Committee endorsement session for mayor, just a few weeks away from what could be a contentious battle for party support between Mayor Bill Finch and Joe Ganim at Testo’s Restaurant. Both Finch and Ganim, by the way, were in the room on the night of the fight that broke out between Mario Testa, today the Democratic chief, and Mike Rizzitelli, captured on film by community activist Cecil Young.
In the summer of 1989, 500 pols jammed the Days Hotel on Lafayette Boulevard for the Democratic Town Committee endorsement for mayor and other offices. Mayor Tom Bucci was endorsed for another two-year term but in November was turned away by voters for Republican Mary Moran as the city’s first female chief executive. But on this night that was beside the point. What’s all the hullabaloo in the video?
Democrats in the city’s 133rd District were fighting for control following the death of long-time District Leader Paul Macciocca. Committee members elected former State Rep. Mario Testa, Bucci’s cousin, as the new leader over the objections of crusty committeeman the late Mike Rizzitelli who’d been fighting Mario for years.
Rizzi claimed the vote was illegal. Mario told him he was full of crap. Rizzi was your classic smoke-filled-room operative who’d fight anyone, anyplace even at age 66.
Community activist Cecil Young, for our historic-preservation benefit, served as videographer for the evening. An examination of the video above, now digitized on YouTube courtesy of OIB webmaster Ray Fusci for the world to see, shows a 29-year-old Joe Ganim, a candidate for mayor, leaning against the wall. Chris Caruso, then a city councilman, managed Ganim’s race for mayor. Democratic Town Committee Chairman the late John Guman is running the meeting. Sitting next to him is a young Carmen Lopez, then an organizational Democrat, who’s now an establishment fighter. Sitting next to Lopez is the late State Comptroller Eddie Caldwell.
In the far background is the media row including me when I served as publisher of the community weekly newspaper The Bridgeport Light, and the late OIB correspondents John Gilmore, then political reporter for the Bridgeport Post, predecessor to the CT Post, and Jim Callahan, cigar in mouth, then editor of The Bridgeport Light, who snapped the classic photo we described in a screaming headline “DUKIN’ DEMS.” If you look closely at the video Callahan grabs his camera and the two combatants miraculously fall into his clicks.
Rizzi’s the guy standing up, pointing his finger, calling Mario a liar. You see Mario bark back, sip from a glass, sit down and then react when Rizzi challenges him to step outside. As the fight breaks out the video camera is dropped to the floor. Cecil decided he wanted to help break up the fight. You’ll see political operatives Raul Laffitte and David Fischer swarm in to break up the battle.
After the fight and ensuing chaos, Bucci ordered the bar at the back of the room closed. Order was restored and Bucci was endorsed. He’d be challenged in a primary by Ganim, State Rep. Jackie Cocco, State Rep. Bob Keeley, 1983 Democratic mayoral nominee Charlie Tisdale and former City Clerk Lenny Crone. Bucci was facing a cranky electorate unnerved by tax increases and a state bailout sought by the mayor more than a year earlier when the budget blew up. Bucci’s challengers split up the anti vote, allowing Bucci to survive the primary for the general election won by Moran. Cocco finished second in the primary and Ganim a surprising third ahead of Tisdale, the first African American nominated for mayor by a major party in the city, who saw his voter base gravitate to Bucci. Two years later Ganim defeated Moran in the general election.