Title photo: During a six-minute address on January 1st, 2015, former Mayor Joe Ganim thanks worshippers at East End Baptist Church “for allowing me a second chance.” Apologizing for breaching the public trust, Ganim said, “I stand before you as a better, stronger, wiser, himbler person who I assure you will never allow those things to happen again in our city.” This screenshot is from a video of the event posted on YouTube at https://youtu.be/-mKgnlMNXmo.
By Douglass Taft Davidoff
@DougTweets | email@example.com | douglassdavidoff.com
In Bridgeport, Connecticut
I have this lawyer friend. Well, he was a lawyer, until he wasn't.
He held a high elected position in Democratic politics. Then he committed a federal crime. He was convicted and went to a federal prison for it.
Now he’s back home in his hometown. It’s located in a once-strong manufacturing region on the edge of one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. It’s a place once so dependent on bending metal that there’s a place along the shoreline with the word “steel” right in the name.
My friend is trying to make an honest living in the world of political and civic life. My friend and I have a mutual friend, a leader in the Democratic Party, who has a huge place in his heart for my friend and made sure my friend had a path to return to life in the community post-prison.
The Democratic Party leader believes in the value of redemption. He told me so in a phone call two weeks ago. He asked me to examine my own values about redemption.
But the more practical of my co-religionists sometimes say that just because everyone has inherent worth and dignity doesn’t mean we have to treat everyone the same way.
You’ve probably guessed by now that the great Democratic leader on the phone with me wasn’t Mario Testa, the Democratic chair in Bridgeport. And the guy I’m describing is not Joe Ganim, the former mayor and candidate to return to office in Bridgeport after seven years behind U.S. government bars.
Instead, I’ve been writing about two men who live hundreds of miles away in a city near a Great Lakes metropolis. But the circumstances are similar to Joe and Mario in Bridgeport. The Democratic leader who called me has read about Ganim in press reports and wanted me to think about these two men — the felon in the Midwest and the felon in Bridgeport — and then think hard and even prayerfully about my attitude toward redemption.
Redemption, if it’s going to be real, is like that. You find a place to work. You make a record. You bring home some honest income. You treat people nice. You ply your trade with humility and hard work.
Redemption isn’t just for felons. It’s for anyone who has made a bad mistake in life. Which means redemption is something all of us have sought.
Redemption has become the chief goal, besides winning the election, for supporters of Ganim’s campaign to return to the mayor’s office. It’s talked up all the time. Agree or not, it’s a powerful drumbeat here in Connecticut’s largest city, where the election is a month away on November 3rd.
I’ve been in a lot of politics in my life; I’ve never been engaged in an election that weighed so heavily on my personal theology. Fact is, I’ve never prayed so much about the meaning of an election.
The Ganim campaign for redemption as well as for election began with his claim that he had earned a second chance. He said so quite directly on New Year’s Day when he spoke for six minutes at East End Baptist Church.
“I got involved with the wrong things and I broke the law. I breached the trust that so many had placed in me. For that, and for all that we’ve lost, I am truly sorry,” Ganim said. It earned him a standing ovation. (You can see this for yourself on a six-minute YouTube video of the apology.)
Then Ganim pivoted from apologizing to claiming his apology earned him a second chance. He also said (presumptuously, I think) that by giving him a second chance, the church members — and all Bridgeporters, by extension — would be giving Bridgeport itself a second chance.
“Thank you for allowing me a second chance,” Ganim said in January. And soon after, he added: “If we want it, it is also about in many ways giving our city a second chance.”
In the weeks and months since then, Ganim’s campaign for mayor has become framed as a way to redeem a worthy soul — a campaign for charitable feelings as well as for lower taxes and other Ganim policies.
You may remember that the Midwestern Democratic leader asked me to look at redemption because he had heard about Ganim and wanted me to think about it in terms of our mutual friend only recently out of prison.
But the idea that Ganim is redeemed turns out to be a tough sell for me. And I know other people see it the same way.
Last Wednesday, mayoral candidate Mary-Jane Foster said as much while accepting the endorsement of Mayor Bill Finch in her newly reënergized race for mayor of Bridgeport. You have to work on earning redemption, Foster said. You don’t claim redemption; you earn it, she said.
What a mistaken person can receive right off the bat is forgiveness, she said.
In my career life, I recently re-learned about the art of apologies and the grace of forgiveness in an important way.
A client was upset with me. The client felt I messed up the presentation of some work and wasted time. The client asked me to apologize and also asked me to take some money off my bill to recognize the value of time lost.
The client and I worked on the apology. It took more time and several fits and starts but I finally got it right — I said what I had done wrong and how it hurt the client. I really tried to put myself into the client’s shoes.
At the end of the month, I knocked a big chunk of change off my invoice.
The client would have none of it. “I forgave you when you apologized in a way that recognized my hurt,” the client said. “When you apologized sincerely, I forgave you. In my faith, that means you wiped the record clean. You didn’t have to take money off your bill, and I’m humbled that you remembered to do it.”
So the client paid me my full invoice, with no deduction. I was forgiven because I apologized well, but only after the client worked on the apology with me. I’m not sure yet if I’ve earned redemption, but I think I might be on my way. For now, that’s good enough.
Forgiveness also is what members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, expressed in court when they shocked the world with the generous attitude they took toward the young man who in June murdered nine people at a Bible study class because they were African-American. Note that the family members didn’t offer redemption, though — just forgiveness.
Hearing so much forgiveness from the families of nine people killed in racial hatred was a religion mind-bender to me. I’ve been praying about it all summer, trying to understand so much grace in the face of so much evil.
Which brings me back to Joe Ganim, because his campaign’s talk about redemption has prompted me to further reflect this summer and autumn on the process of apology, forgiveness, and redemption.
I’m quite new in town, returning to Fairfield County after four decades away. The Ganim mayoralty occured when I was living in the Midwest; I know the details not well at all. But he has a reputation for having been, in the early years, an agent of positive change. Then he used his position to commit federal crimes. He erased the good reputation, and now he wants to be returned to an office a person that only a person with a good reputation should expect.
It looks to me like Ganim is nothing more than a political animal, saying whatever is needed to get his hands back on the levers of power.
He breezed back into public life this year, apologizing in January and then steadily turned up the talk about redemption. As if we owe it to him. Like he’s entitled to it. And he couched all this as if redemption is part of a political strategy, not a religious reflection and conclusion. It’s too pat, too calculated. I’ve reflected and I’ve decided: I don’t owe him redemption at all.
Another Bridgeport friend looks at Ganim and doesn’t feel at all inclined to support him politically or even to take the theological step of considering redemption for him. When we spoke a week ago, we agreed that we share another worry: Ganim will tear the city apart looking to destroy any connection to the Finch Administration and the Foster campaign.
Because Ganim projects a sense of entitlement — “I earned redemption by apologizing to you and justifying my second chance by giving you a spirited campaign for mayor,” he seems to be saying — I think the first few weeks and months of a Ganim term will be a rampage. It will be a campaign to blame every last blemish on everyone except Joe Ganim.
Indeed, I fear his whole term might be like that. True, he might roll out a lower-taxes plan, but we’ll feel blue and angry about that, too. I think he’ll divide Bridgeport into people who are with him and people who aren’t — which he’ll frame as people against him.
This friend has done some work placing former offenders into jobs. The chief guideline, she said, is: “Don’t place the offender into a position where they can repeat the crime.” Which pretty much means the worst place for Joe Ganim himself, if not for the rest of us, is in the Bridgeport mayor’s office.
I think The Hartford Courant got it right in a story last week by Christopher Keating, who reported this:
“Listen, the new people that registered to vote listened to the message,” Newton said of Ganim’s appeal. “Bill Finch was feeding them all the post cards. They can read. They wasn’t illiterate. He sent 30 or 40 postcards out talking about Joe’s past. Many of them voted for Joe.”
The city’s legislative delegation to Hartford — like the city itself — was sharply split during the primary. Of the seven-member delegation, four were for Finch, two for Foster, and one for Ganim. The two state senators are supporting Foster, while Rep. Charlie Stallworth is supporting Ganim. Stallworth is the senior pastor at an East End church where Ganim publicly apologized on New Year’s Day and essentially launched his comeback campaign.
It worries me that the new voters Ganim is finding probably are not able to fund the war chest he’s assembled. I don’t know where his money is coming from. I’m annoyed that the media isn’t covering campaign finance during this election. Where is Ganim’s money coming from? My fears mount.
This tale began hundreds of miles away when my friend the Midwestern Democratic leader called to ask me to look at Joe Ganim — whom he doesn’t know except through news accounts — in view of the redemption we’re according to our other Midwestern friend who is making a life of good and honest work after serving his own federal prison sentence.
Done: I’ve reëxamined how I feel about Joe Ganim. Prayed about it Sunday while at church and while driving and doing other things.
Conclusion: I’m just not there. I’m stuck on what the evidence and the atmospherics tell me, and what my gut tells me.
Prediction: If we elect Joe Ganim, I simply believe we’re in for mean times.
It won’t be pretty. The promise of a new Bridgeport will be lost in the kind of vindicative politics that long typified the old Bridgeport. Only in Bridgeport? Nope. This kind of politics sadly bogs down manufacturing heritage cities throughout the East and Midwest.
Mired in vindictiveness, I’m afraid that under a Mayor Ganim we’ll become stuck in pettiness. We won’t move forward, as we did under Mayor Finch and as we might under Mayor Foster. With Mayor Ganim, we might get lower taxes. But we’ll pay plenty for that narrow victory.
In fact, when you look at his apology closely, you see that it’s a politician’s coyly worded apology. It’s not really a personal apology.
“I stand before you,” Ganim said at East End Baptist Church in January, “as a better, stronger, wiser, humbler person who, I assure you, will never allow those things to happen again in our city.”
That’s not a good-enough apology in my view. He omitted promising he will never allow those bad behaviors to occur anywhere at anytime in himself — only that he will save us from those behaviors in Bridgeport. Somehow, we’re to make him our shield against the likes of himself. (Especially himself, because he never fully promised to completely change himself.)
When Ganim claimed his right to a second chance — which truly is an American right, enshrined for example in the Constitution’s provision for forgiveness of debts through bankruptcy — he then made his personal second chance into a second chance for the city. It’s as if all of Bridgeport erred because he did. Does he think we all went to prison with him, somehow? Does he think all of Bridgeport erred when the federal court concluded he was a felonious criminal? I just don’t see how Bridgeport went wrong when Ganim was convicted and put behind bars.
Having written this, how sure am I about it? To be candid, I’m just 80 percent sure. I know two things that could affect the last 20 percent and might even cause me to reconsider my opinion of Joe Ganim.
First, I might change some or all of my opinion if I heard Ganim speak face-to-face. Despite all the opportunities the campaign trail has afforded, I’ve managed to miss every opportunity to hear and see Ganim speak in the same room. (I’ve certainly heard a lot of broadcast interviews, especially the excellent July interview on WNPR-FM by Colin McEnroe. McEnroe followed up with an op-ed in the Hartford Courant calling Ganim to task for weasling out of a solid apology; the headline was: “No redemption for Ganim.”)
Second, I might pray some more. The heart is a deep place. What seems like wisdom today might be revealed as foolishness tomorrow. I will pray lots more between now and November to see if I discern a difference. But in the meantime, I’m working to elect Mary-Jane Foster as mayor of Bridgeport.