Mayors bounce back, or not, after charges

Sunday, November 11, 2001

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Mayor Joseph P. Ganim faces a daunting task: leading one of the state's poorest cities in a weak economy with 24 felony corruption charges hanging over his head.

He pleaded innocent last week and has refused to resign, but the indictment has raised doubts about the mayor's ability to effectively govern Bridgeport.

Ganim has a few precedents to look to as tries to beat the charges and steer Bridgeport toward prosperity. Mayors in other cities have encountered similar dilemmas -- with some maintaining their popularity and even winning re-election under indictment.

In Providence, R.I., Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci Jr. has remained popular while under indictment on corruption charges. In Calumet City, Ill., a Chicago suburb, Mayor Jerry Genova easily defeated four challengers last year while facing racketeering charges.

The key for mayors accused of corruption is to convince voters they are still working hard, said Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University. That means frequent public appearances, he said.

"Before you go to trial, you're playing to the court of public opinion," West said.

Ganim was highly visible in the days before and after he was indicted. He believes he can overcome the indictment and lead Bridgeport out of the doldrums.

"I'm committed to making the next two years maybe my most successful years as mayor," said Ganim, who appeared with former U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy on Wednesday to announce a prescription drug program.

Precedent set

In Calumet City, Genova remained distracted by his legal troubles, and political ambitions and governance took a back seat, said John Pelissero, a political science professor at Loyola University in Chicago. After his conviction Aug. 27, Genova was removed from office, and the city has struggled to overcome a tarnished reputation.

Cianci, Providence's longest-serving mayor, is credited with reclaiming the city from the depths of industrial decay. Under his watch, the state capital became a model for urban renewal, with parks, cultural venues and a sprawling new downtown shopping mall.

A poll in June by Brown University found that more than 40 percent of voters surveyed thought Cianci was guilty of the racketeering charges, but nearly three-quarters thought he was doing a good job.

Other indicted mayors never recovered.

In Camden, N.J., Mayor Milton Milan was convicted in December of taking mob payoffs, laundering drug money and stealing campaign funds. He became the third of the past five mayors of New Jersey's poorest city to be found guilty of corruption.

While mayors in Bridgeport and Providence can point to signs of progress, Camden's troubles were so severe that effective government never took hold. Homicides soared so much one year that state troopers had to help patrol the streets, and in 1999 the state took control of city finances and schools.

When Ganim became mayor of Bridgeport a decade ago, the city was bankrupt and known as the murder capital of Connecticut. Crime has since dropped sharply and major development projects have been completed, including a new minor league baseball stadium and a sports arena.

"Why would I jeopardize everything -- a run for governor, our achievements in the city of Bridgeport, my reputation, my family -- to be part of an extortion scheme where I didn't even get one dime of money?" the mayor asked after entering his plea.

Struggling city

Bridgeport depends heavily on state aid, and it struggles to attract private investment.

"Having somebody in that situation with their fingers on the purse strings doesn't inspire confidence in government," said James W. Hughes, dean of the school of planning and public policy at Rutgers University.

The investigation in Bridgeport has led to 10 guilty pleas since June. Several of the defendants were close associates of the mayor. He says he was betrayed by people who are lying about him to "save their skins."

Residents' opinions about Ganim are sharply divided.

"He's lost any credibility and any ability to effectively lead because of the cloud that surrounds him, whether he's guilty or not," said Wayne Winsley, a radio talk show host. "He's become a distraction and an embarrassment and he should step aside."

But Sammy Matthews, a 44-year-old janitor, finds it hard to believe Ganim is guilty.

"He's such a fair person," Matthews said. "Look how much he accomplished for the city."

Matthews was walking by the Polka Dot Playhouse, which plans a children's play, "The Grinches That Stole Bridgeportville."

The play is fictional and nonpolitical, but its title underscores the concern that Bridgeport's recovery will stall under the weight of a lengthy corruption trial.

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