Even if you don't like the choices.

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Tuesday's Wackiest Election? The Re-Elected Felon Mayor

Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. He is the author of “The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York City’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship.”
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Lots of places claim to be America’s friendliest town. But Tuesday’s election revealed a clear-cut winner for most forgiving city: Bridgeport, Connecticut. It also showed how election laws crafted to benefit parties can hurt voters.

In one of the most improbable political comebacks in modern U.S. history, voters in Bridgeport (the state’s largest city) returned former mayor Joseph Ganim to city hall, five years after he completed a seven-year sentence for racketeering, extortion, tax fraud and bribery, which he committed during his previous 12 years as mayor.

Ganim said he was “truly sorry” about his past, even though he’s never actually admitted to the specific crimes, which included skimming $800,000 from contractors in cash and clothes and meals and wine. Also, there were some home renovations. But the FBI agent who brought him down endorsed and campaigned for him, and so did the local police union. Everyone deserves a second chance, right? Besides, the capacity to forgive is practically a prerequisite for voting.

The loveable rogue is an archetype in local politics, but voters tend to have their limits. Private indiscretions are one thing -- in 1994, Marion Barry won another stint in city hall after he had served six months in prison for a drug conviction -- but abuse of office for financial gain is different. Usually.

Last year, voters in Providence, Rhode Island, rejected former mayor Buddy Cianci’s comeback bid after he served five years on corruption-related charges. Even James Michael Curley, the legendarily roguish mayor of Boston who inspired “the best novel about American politics,” lost two bids for city hall after a mail fraud conviction sent him to federal prison for five months.

So Ganim has set a new standard for political redemption. Even though the Connecticut Supreme Court denied his bid to have his law license reinstated last year (it cited his “failure to either to explain, or acknowledge any responsibility for his extensive criminal wrongdoing, or to express remorse for that wrongdoing”) voters have decided that Ganim, while he may not be fit to argue the law, should be trusted to make it. Given that his first stint as mayor was generally well-regarded, aside from the thieving, they may well be right.

I won’t second-guess the citizens of Bridgeport. They elected P.T. Barnum mayor in 1875, and that turned out pretty well. But I do wish their election laws would have afforded them a different choice.

In the Democratic primary, a majority of voters wanted someone other than Ganim: 44 percent voted for the incumbent, Bill Finch, and 9 percent for the founder of the local minor league baseball team, Mary-Jane Foster. But the 47 percent Ganim won was enough to capture the nomination, and he advanced to face Republican Enrique Torres.

The trouble is, Torres was never a credible threat to beat Ganim. There are 10 Democrats for every Republican in Bridgeport, so whoever wins the party’s nomination for mayor is all but guaranteed victory. Independents, who make up more than one in four of the city’s voters, are barred from voting in the Democratic primary, which usually leaves them in the position of rubber-stamping the party’s nominee or casting a protest vote for the Republican.

This year, horrified by the prospect of Ganim returning to city hall, Finch declared he would run as a third-party candidate -- then failed to file the proper paperwork. That left the far weaker Democrat, Foster, to run as an independent against Ganim and Torres.

In most U.S. cities, this would never have happened. Instead, all voters would have been eligible to participate in the first round of primary voting, and all candidates would have been on the ballot. The top two finishers, regardless of their party affiliation, would have advanced to the general election. This system of voting, usually called nonpartisan or "top two," would have almost certainly produced a head-to-head match-up between Ganim and Finch.

Bridgeport, however, still uses party-based elections, so Ganim advanced to face a Republican with virtually no chance of winning and a Democrat with little public support, with the two of them splitting the anti-crook vote. Unofficial returns show Ganim winning with about 60 percent. Would he have beaten Finch? Who knows. But voters deserved that choice. 

While Ganim’s case is exceptional, the problem it reveals -- party-based election laws thwarting competition to the detriment of voters -- can be seen not only in other cities, including New York, Baltimore and Washington, but also in state and federal races around the country. Voters have tolerated those laws for decades, but as Bridgeport shows, they’d be better off being a little less forgiving. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net