A gubernatorial debate in New Haven turned testy after protesters pushed Joe Ganim about his handling of cops who kill and Ganim pushed his opponent Ned Lamont on how he finances his campaign.
The fast-paced exchanges flew Wednesday night in the last 16 minutes of the forum before a packed crowd of human services and social-justice advocates at Albertus Magnus College’s Tagliatela Center Wednesday night, where Greenwich businessman Lamont and Bridgeport Mayor Ganim were “in conversation” on education, housing, immigration, healthcare, and criminal justice reform. Party-endorsed Lamont faces challenger Ganim in an Aug. 14 Democratic primary.
The personal animosity that has developed between the two remained under wraps until an hour and ten minutes into the debate, when Ganim resurfaced an old allegation about Lamont’s performance at one of his private businesses. Lamont called it a personal attack. Ganim insisted Lamont’s alleged “business practices” are a legitimate issue.
“Joe, just relax,” Lamont interrupted him, placing his hand on his opponent’s arm.
Ganim shot back: “Please don’t touch me.”
Throughout the evening Lamont argued that his business acumen will enable him to lead the state out of its financial woes and make it competitive again, while Ganim made the case that experience in governing best equips him.
Then the discussion took an unexpected swerve when Ganim was asked a question about why no Bridgeport police officers have been charged or disciplined in a series of high-profile incidents involving the deaths of young people of color.
That question originated from Jazmarie Melendez, sister of Jayson Negron, a 15-year-old shot to death last year by Bridgeport police officers. She showed up with a group of placard-bearing, criminal-justice reformers from New Haven and Bridgeport to confront Ganim over how he has handled the Negron case and the case of 18-year-old Corbin Cooper who died in a police chase that ended in a crash.
Ganim expressed remorse for the death of both teens, calling the incidents “terrible losses. Both terrible tragedies.”
“These are people who are known in our community that have friends and relatives,” he said. “These are sensitive.”
But he also tried to make a distinction about authority and what power his police chief has and his own authority as a mayor. He pointed out that in Negron’s case the investigation was taken over by the state’s attorney’s office, which is common for fatal cases involving local cops. Neither he nor his chief had any authority over whether officers would be charged, he said.
Ganim said he had concerns about the “transparency” of that process, but ultimately the chief state’s attorney’s office couldn’t communicate with him until the investigation was complete and he had no say in that process. That investigation ultimately concluded that the use of force in the Negron case was justified. (Officers had stopped a stolen car and ordered Negron outside; he remained inside.)
In the wake of these cases, Ganim said, the city police are getting more de-escalation and sensitivity training and using body and dashboard cameras.
“But we still have challenges, certainly,” he said. “I will uphold the law and fight against any officer or individual who breaks the civil rights of any individual or causes any problem and that’s where I come from … but that wasn’t my role and responsibility, authority in that situation.”
“You have the power to hold that officer accountable,” New Haven activist Kerry Ellington called out from the crowd. “You have that power. You’re not using it. Bridgeport does not have body cameras or dash cameras.”
“I asked the chief state’s attorney when they came out with their decision, what authority do I have, what authority does the chief have under Connecticut law …” Ganim started to respond but protesters drowned him out.
Lamont then took the mic, pivoting from offering condolences to Jazmarie Melendez to questioning Ganim’s downplaying his role in the case.
“First of all you’re much too young to have to suffer the tragedies you did,” he said, “And I thought that explanation I just heard was nonsense.
“You want someone who is going to stand up and take responsibility. Not the legislature, not the police chief. You want someone who will give the community the confidence that we will do everything we could. As governor, I would take the lead on that. Policing doesn’t work unless there is some sense that police are working on behalf of the people. That’s not happening “
To which Ganim accused Lamont of using a sensitive case to earn political points.
“I lost a lot of your respect for you for what you just said,” Ganim told Lamont.
“As mayor, as a public official, you will often be situations where the heart goes out but your authority and what you want to do is confined,” Ganim said. “I won’t politicize this and won’t address it any further.”
Looking For Full Disclosure
Lamont got his own chance in the hot seat with the next questions, which concerned how the “second-chance society” Connecticut is pursuing relates to elections.
He was asked whether Ganim should have been allowed to receive public-financing to try to match some of the dollars Lamont is spending of his own money to run for governor. Lamont is opting out of the voluntary public-financing system so he can spend as much money as he wants; he has spent $10 million on previous losing campaigns. Ganim sought to qualify for matching public dollars under the Citizen Election Program. But a judge ruled that he couldn’t participate because he was convicted of a felony in a corruption case involving his earlier stint as mayor.
“If you’re qualified to run for governor, you should qualify for public financing,” Lamont said.
“Whether you should be elected or not,” he added, “is another question.”
He said Ganim was given a second chance by the voters of Bridgeport and has the right to be mayor.
“You should complete your job in Bridgeport,” Lamont said.
He was then asked whether having been convicted of stealing money from taxpayers and then serving his time should disqualify Ganim from becoming governor.
“I think the laws of the state say if you serve your time you can run and you can serve,” Lamont responded.
Ganim said he appreciated that comment. Then he took a dig at Lamont for his deep pockets, pointing out that in his bid to make the ballot Ganim had talked to thousands of people and collected 32,000 signatures on petitions from voters.
“Even without public financing that effort is people over power,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how much money I have. Every vote counts the same.”
He then noted that Lamont as a self-financer doesn’t need to file detailed reports that show how he came to amass the money that’s going into his campaign. He challenged Lamont to limit his spending to $1.2 million; Lamont has declined to do that.
“I’ve asked for full disclosure,” Ganim said. “You know all about me, you should know all about Ned and where his money comes from.”
“It’s getting a little feisty around here!” Lamont remarked. “I’ve got nothing to hide. I’m proud of how I earn my money. I work my heart out every day. I created a business, I created jobs and my wife has worked her heart out as well. So I’m proud of what we did. I’m not going to apologize for that. By the way, Republicans are spending $10 million to take back the governor’s mansion in November.”
Ganim said if Lamont’s wife Anne (a venture capitalist), for instance, is a state contractor the people should know before Election Day.
“This is a very important election,” he said.
The forum was hosted by Greater New Haven VOTE 2018 a nonpartisan collaborative effort targeting the youth and voters of color who have historically had trouble accessing the ballot, according to the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.