Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie

FAIRFIELD—The day after a debate between the Democratic candidates for governor turned tense in New Haven over how Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim has handled incidents involving deaths of young people of color, the emotional issue resurfaced Thursday again at another debate at Sacred Heart University.

Ganim, who has petitioned his way onto the Aug. 14 primary ballot against party-endorsed candidate Ned Lamont, had been asked at Wednesday’s New Haven debate 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. (Read a full story about that debate here.)

She showed up at the New Haven debate 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.
On Wednesday, Ganim expressed remorse for the death of both teens, calling the incidents “terrible losses. Both terrible tragedies.”

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.

Lamont, at Wednesday’s debate, criticized Ganim’s response to the family.

“You want someone who is going to stand up and take responsibility. Not the legislature, not the police chief,” Lamont said. “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.”

At Thursday’s debate, a still upset Ganim, fired back at Lamont, saying he has “lost respect” for his opponent for “trying to politicize” the issue on Wednesday.

“I probably been to more funerals of young people in my city except for pastors than most,” Ganim told Lamont. “I hope and pray you never have to do the same. I don’t like you throwing this [issue] into the middle of a gubernatorial election.”

Lamont didn’t back down Thursday from what he had said Wednesday.

“I saw the pain in her eyes,” Lamont said, speaking of the sister of the teenager shot and killed. “One thing you do as a governor is reach out and listen.”

Lamont praised Gov. Dan Malloy for the role he played in trying to console the families of those who were murdered in the Sandy Hook school shooting.

It was the second gubernatorial debate this week at Sacred Heart. On Tuesday the five Republican candidates for governor on the Aug. 14th primary ballot squared off.

Thursday’s debate was moderated by Hearst political reporter and columnist Ken Dixon. It was jointly sponsored by Sacred Heart, WSHU, and Hearst Connecticut Media.

On other issues, both Ganim and Lamont said they would have not voted with the majority on Tuesday on the Bond Commission to spend $10 million to study whether the state should put electronic tolls on its highways.

Both said the issue has been studied enough. Ganim said the $10 million can’t be justified “when people are hurting across the state.” Both said the state’s focus should be on how to get funds from out of state, not in-state drivers if tolling is put in.

Lamont added that any tolling system should “focus on tractor-trailer trucks that are destroying are state roads.”

Both said they are in support of a “lockbox initiative” on this November’s ballot, as long as the funds are spent on transportation.

Both were asked to name one reason to praise the outgoing Malloy, who has been a punching bag for the Republicans in their debates.

Ganim said that he and Malloy share the same view for “common sense gun laws” in Connecticut. Lamont, who ran against Malloy in a 2010 primary, said the governor deserves credit for funding the state’s pension system, unlike his predecessors.

As comes up in every debate, the question of Ganim’s criminal past was discussed.

Ganim served seven years in federal prison. A jury found Ganim guilty of 16 counts of racketeering, extortion, racketeering conspiracy, bribery, mail fraud and other felony charges for pocketing a half-million dollars worth of kickbacks from city contractors in the form of cash, meals, clothes, wine, and home repairs.

“I made serious errors in judgement and paid a price for it,” Ganim said. “I learned lessons about the impacts of mistakes.”

“I apologized as publically and asked and got a second chance in Bridgeport,” Ganim said. He then repeated a phrase he has used often to describe his criminal past and current career revival: “Every saint has a past and every sinner has future.”

Lamont’s take on Ganim’s stint on prison?

“The people of Bridgeport decided that Joe Ganim did deserve a second chance,” Lamont said. “I think he should honor the commitment they made to him to finish his term.”