Gomes campaign video screenshot
This is a screengrab from a video posted to Facebook by an account called “John Gomes for Mayor,” alleging that multiple illegal absentee ballots were deposited into a ballot box. See the full video below. Credit: Screengrab / John Gomes for Mayor / John Gomes for Mayor
Jonathan L. Wharton

Unless everyone’s been under a rock, Connecticut residents should know by now about Bridgeport’s absentee ballot controversy.

Prior to the primary election last week, the State Election Enforcement Commission recommended criminal violations for city hall employees over absentee ballot irregularities that took place during the 2019 mayoral election. The most recent allegations center on a video recording (which a mayoral candidate mysteriously obtained) of a city hall official and local party leader placing documents into a voting drop box. While officials, pundits, and reporters point fingers, one should never ignore political machine tactics. 

By happenstance, I am teaching machine politics for my state and local government class this week. Political machines were – and in some instances remain – critical for many immigrant and Black communities since newly arriving migrants rely on party leaders and officials to help with housing, jobs, and additional resources.

I have researched and lived in several New Jersey political machine strongholds, and one cannot avoid machine politics when studying economic development in the Garden State. Jersey City and Newark’s political operations are problematic but also impressive. Political leaders demand loyalty and quid pro quo is often the expectation from voters and business contractors.

Many of us tend to assume that political bosses and patronage politics ended generations ago. Notable powerbrokers include New York’s Boss (William) Tweed, Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague, and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Some American cities passed reform-oriented measures to curb machine politics, especially by the 1980s. Political candidates and voters supported various reforms to prevent political favoritism and to allow for more transparency. 

But several Connecticut cities, including Bridgeport, remain in a political machine time warp. Few political reforms took shape and the local Democratic Town Committee became more powerful with lessened party competition from local Republicans and the Working Families Party. Political scientist Peter Burns offers in his “Electoral Politics Is Not Enough” book how local officials maintain patronage politics and exclude communities from political engagement. And it was only last week that so few Bridgeport voters participated in the primary election as a political machine relies on loyalty from their supporters and disinterest from others. 

As much as officials and candidates are casting blame at Mayor Joe Ganim, it’s really the local party committee that has remained entrenched in machine politics. I raised these concerns in previous op-eds, especially with monopolistic and longtime party bosses like Bridgeport Democratic Party Chairman Mario Testa. Mayors in many Connecticut cities are symbolic figureheads while the political powerbroker is often the majority party’s local chair.

But it just seems like many observers and state officials are overlooking Bridgeport’s machine politics. While Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas and the leaders of the General Assembly have been outspoken about absentee ballot concerns in Bridgeport, they are offering state-level oversight. State lawmakers planned a special session this week to consider an election-monitoring proposal. Some are calling for more funds, staffing, and authority for the State Elections Enforcement Commission. Meanwhile, mayoral candidate John Gomes has pressed ahead with a lawsuit and is pushing for a primary election redo as he won the in-person voter turnout but lost by 251 absentee ballots.

Many Bridgeport residents have lost faith in their local institutions and the electoral process, and this recent episode only adds to the city’s political malaise. Even the highest vote winner for Bridgeport’s Board of Education, Leslie Caraballo, announced she’s dropping out because she doesn’t want to be associated with ballot stuffing.

Aside from state involvement, what Bridgeport needs and deserves are political reforms from local candidates and officials. More voters must turn out in elections, but to pave the way for that the voters must have faith in their local government to institute substantial reform-oriented policies to confront political machine tactics.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

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