Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim didn’t hesitate to single himself out Friday as the kind of person who would benefit from his city’s new Second Chance Society Initiative at a news conference at the Margaret Morton Government Center.
“It’s no secret that I’m one of those people,” said Ganim, who was convicted in 2003 on federal felony corruption charges while serving his fifth term as mayor Bridgeport. He was speaking to a crowd of ex-offenders, city and state politicians, clergy, and businesspeople .
Ganim served as mayor from 1991 to 2003 before being convicted of 16 charges, including bribery, racketeering, and extortion. He was sent to prison for steering city contracts in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in expensive wine, custom clothes, cash, and home improvements.
Released in 2010, Ganim successfully made a political comeback in 2015 when he again won election as mayor.
Ganim said unlike most ex-convicts, he had the financial means and family relationships to help him get back on his feet after spending years in jail.
“But even for me the challenges were there,” said the mayor, as the crowd of over 100 listened attentively to him talk about what he and others called a groundbreaking “Second Chance Society Initiative,” specific to Bridgeport and unrelated to the legislation that the General Assembly failed to pass this year.
“When you get out of jail, you just want an opportunity,” Ganim told the crowd. “I wanted to be a lawyer again.”
But the state Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that Ganim could not be a lawyer again.
So, instead Ganim ran for his old job — mayor — in 2015. And he won.
“I understand an element of punishment, deterrence,” Ganim told the gathered crowd on Friday. “But there is also supposed to be an element of retribution, of rehabilitation.”
The mayor’s words were met by a round of applause from the supportive crowd.
Area business leaders, members of the Bridgeport Re-Entry Collaborative, representatives from local nonprofit organizations, and others in attendance said the point of the Second Chance Society Initiative was to challenge and encourage local businesses to hire ex-offenders with a past conviction in their background.
Ganim is proposing a $50,000 budget transfer as seed money and a challenge grant that the city will invest in a fund, or pool of funds, that officials hope will be matched by private sector dollars, foundational support, and money from the state and federal governments.
That money, Ganim said, will be used to establish an office in city government for Second chance initiatives, and to hire a coordinator and launch a program — hopefully this fall — that will encourage and incentivize private-sector employers to hire ex-offenders.
Ganim’s spokesman, Av Harris outlined the particulars of the plan:
“What we are looking to do is use those funds to essentially mitigate the risk that private sector employers might perceive hiring an ex-offender by providing that person with the training and preparation to be ‘job-ready’,” Harris said. ‘And then we would fund the first three months of that individual’s pay so the employer would get a qualified individual to work for them at no cost for a trial period of 90 days . . . Then if the person works out, they can be hired full or part time by the business.”
More than a dozen area businesses were represented at Friday’s news conference and afterward signed the pledge to give people a second chance. Ganim said more than 40 Bridgeport businesses have already pledged to participate in the program, and the mayor said the number is growing.
One of the business leaders that has signed on is John Santa, chief executive officer of Santa Fuel Inc., a leading supplier of home heating oil and propane to homeowners in Fairfield and New Haven counties.
“Yes we are taking the pledge,” Santa said Friday. “The fact is that 250 immigrants a week are coming back onto the streets of the city of Bridgeport. They are immigrants coming from prison. We want to give them an opportunity — a second chance.”
Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Trumbull, also in attendance Friday, said Bridgeport is “taking the first step today,” and added that everyone knows someone who has been incarcerated.
“I hope what we are seeing here today is the launching of a pilot program for the rest of the state, perhaps the rest of the country,” Moore said.
Bridgeport’s “Second Chance” comes on the heels of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s own unsuccessful attempt, so far, to get the General Assembly to back his Second Chance 2.0 legislation, which would eliminate bail bonds for nonviolent misdemeanor offenders and allow 18- to 20-year-olds to be tried as juveniles.
It’s the latter part of Malloy’s proposed legislation that caused most lawmakers to withhold their support for the legislation, but in the end even the elimination of bail bonds became contentious.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, fearful it will cost them votes this November from voters who believe legislation goes soft on those convicted of crimes, have been reluctant to give younger people the ability to have their cases decided in a juvenile court that’s not open to the public.
Malloy refused to support Ganim last year when the ex-felon ran successfully to win his mayoral seat back in Bridgeport. At the time, Malloy said it would be awkward to deal with fellow Democrat Ganim since he (Ganim) was the one who systematically ripped the city off more than a decade ago.
Ganim made reference on Friday to the fact that “our president, our governor have been talking about policies of second chance.”
The Bridgeport mayor wasn’t the only politician — and convicted felon — who made a pitch for second chance legislation at Friday’s press conference.
State Sen. Ed Gomes, D-Bridgeport, told the crowd he, too, was an ex-con, stating in 1953, as a 17-year-old, he got arrested for breaking into a restaurant and stealing a couple of tuna fish sandwiches.
Gomes told the crowd he was sentenced to serve one-to-two years in prison in Cheshire, and when he got out he tried to join the military but recruiters turned him down. They didn’t want an ex-convict, he said.
“But the U.S. Army did,” he said, and eventually took him in despite his criminal record.
“The system just screws with you,” said Gomes. “All we want is to give people a job, their families a second chance.”