When Democrats converge on Philadelphia next month to officially nominate Hillary Clinton for president, two old buds will be shoulder to shoulder as delegates, Democratic Town Chair Mario Testa and Mayor Joe Ganim. City Councilwoman Mary McBride Lee will also be there as a delegate. Joe and Mario enjoy a heralded history of fascination at party conventions. For Mario and Joe what a difference a year and a decade make.
Last June Ganim was retail politicking his butt off filleting incumbent Mayor Bill Finch over low police staffing levels and high violent crime rate. Mario was preparing for the convention for mayor in July pondering how he’d throw Finch under the bus for the September primary. Mario and Bill were not buds, but Mario was not quite ready to make public his private rooting for Joe. The week before the endorsement Mario, frustrated by Finch’s lack of “respect” for the chair, announced if there was an endorsement tie he’d break it for Joe. And it appeared Joe was right there for the endorsement. But Finch, as mayor, still controlled the candy store and he reeled in a couple of votes leaning for Joe.
Finch was endorsed at the raucous convention, but then Joe and his campaign crew hit the streets the next morning and in quick time secured plenty of signatures to make the primary ballot where Joe lanced Finch in September on his way to a general election win.
As conventions go, however, it’s hard to beat the 1994 Democratic convention for governor.
Ganim, in his second term of JG1, was a candidate for governor. Joe got into the race after Governor Lowell Weicker, who had helped bail out the city from fiscal hell, decided not to seek reelection. The campaign was cash rich and delegate poor so when making the ballot wasn’t in the cards for Joe (you could not petition your way on back then), Joe backed out of the race one week before the Democratic convention throwing his support behind likely endorsed candidate State Senate leader John Larson (today Congressman Larson) with the hope he’d select Joe as his running mate.
During the Democratic convention in Hartford, as Larson’s boys including Senate Majority Leader William DiBella pondered the selection of the second slot, a contingent of Connecticut mayors who wanted one of their own on the ticket adjourned to a watering hole in the Hartford Civic Center, among them Hartford Mayor Mike Peters and Waterbury Mayor Ed Bergin as well as Mario and Ganim.
Mayor Mike and Mayor Ed were lubing up the joint. They were feeling pretty good. Finally the call came. Larson had made his decision. They all squeezed into a conference room while delegates in the civic center convention hall waited for an answer.
Larson, facing dozens of Democratic big shots, announced, “I think it’s time to embrace Rich Balducci,” he told the crowd. Balducci, a long-time legislator, had also been a candidate for governor. Emerging from a back room thumping his chest, Balducci announced, “I want everyone to know that I’ll be running as an independent lieutenant governor,” suggesting he’d take the second slot but he’d not be breaking his ass for the ticket. Balducci had also given his word to State Comptroller Bill Curry, the other Dem guber candidate in the race, that he would not work against him.
The place was in stunned silence. This is the person Larson chose? Bridgeport Democratic Town Chair Mario Testa would have none of it. The little man with big ones edged closer to Balducci. “Wait a minute, Mr. Balducci,” drawing out his name, “are you telling us you’re not going to support Larson?”
Balducci stammered on his words. In a flash there was chaos.
“What the fuck is going on around here!” Mayor Peters screamed.
“Yeah, what the fuck is this!” Mayor Bergin yelled.
Peters walked up to Larson and declared: “We’re going to settle this right now.”
Peters, Bergin and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano circled with Ganim. “Joe,” Peters asked, “do you want to be lieutenant governor?”
Joe nodded yes.
“That settles it,” Bergin chimed in.
The mayors walked up to Larson and said “Enough of this horseshit, Joe’s gonna be the candidate.” So it was done. That’s how 34-year-old Joe Ganim became the candidate for lieutenant governor in 1994. It didn’t work out. Larson lost the primary to Bill Curry and Curry lost the general election (with Joe as his running mate) to John Rowland.
For Mario, however, that afternoon in the cramped room was political bliss. So the next time you’re in Mario’s restaurant, ask him about the 1994 gubernatorial convention and he will crack a Kermit smile.
But then there was the party endorsement for mayor in 1989. And that one was also a beauty. How could we let this moment pass without reminiscing about Mario’s fight with town committee member Mike Rizzitelli. Check out the video below for your enjoyment. At the opening of the video you’ll see standing a young Danny Roach, Ganim’s mayoral chief of staff, with young Joe in the background. Joe was a candidate for mayor in 1989 and Danny was supporting him. Ganim won the mayoralty for the first time two years later. The guy speaking at the podium was then Democratic Town Chair John Guman.