Bridgeport's Burdens

Is the city's problem bad election choices--or something deeper?
by | November 2007

The last two mayors of Bridgeport, Connecticut, brought disgrace to the office in a rather serious way. Next month, the city gets to start over again with a new chief executive, and this offers at least the potential for optimism that things will get better. They could hardly get worse. But Bridgeport citizens might be forgiven for wondering whether the city's problems are really the result of a couple of bad actors--or whether there is something in the entrenched political system that is at the root of the trouble.

John Fabrizi, the outgoing mayor, admitted last year that he had abused cocaine and alcohol while in office. Then he created further embarrassment by testifying as a character witness on behalf of a convicted sex offender. Fabrizi himself took office back in 2003 after the previous mayor, Joseph Ganim, was sent to federal prison on corruption charges. A local state senator was sent to the same prison in a related bribery case.

All of these humiliations led state Representative Chris Caruso to base his mayoral campaign in 2007, logically enough, on the theme of cleaning up city hall. But it didn't work.

While Caruso talked non-stop about corruption, his opponent, state Senator Bill Finch, who had no apparent skeletons in his past, ran on education and development issues and promised residents a $600 break on their property taxes.

Finch won the September primary by a margin of 270 votes. This did not end Caruso's complaints that Finch was tied to a corrupt party machine. Caruso filed suit seeking to overturn the election results, citing numerous irregularities. An unsuccessful city council candidate who also lost narrowly to a party-backed candidate filed a nearly identical suit.

Bridgeport, an industrial city in long decline, currently stands on the cusp of finalizing some major redevelopment projects. Some residents are concerned that Finch, as part of the local machine, will continue the city's long cycle of patronage abuse and corruption. But even some Caruso backers note that their man never really made the case against Finch, and are urging him to get over the fact that he lost.

"People perceived that Finch was more specific and more positive," says Donald Greenberg, a politics professor at Fairfield University who ran on Caruso's ticket for the Board of Education. "They did not seem to associate him with the old guard."