Fatigue and frustration as final do-over mayoral election looms in Connecticut's largest city

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Manuel Alcantara deposits absentee ballots for his son and daughter in a dropbox outside City Hall in Bridgeport, Conn., Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. He wanted to make sure they were properly deposited because he's had issues with campaign workers coming to his home, wanting to pick them up. Tuesday's general election marks the fourth time Democrats will have voted for the next mayor - counting the two primaries and two general elections - since the now-voided Sept. 12 primary when incumbent Mayor Joe Ganim defeated challenger John Gomes by 251 votes out of 8,173 cast. It will be the second time for Republicans and unaffiliated voters. (AP Photo/Susan Haigh)

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – It’s been nearly four months since a judge tossed out the results of a Democratic mayoral primary in Connecticut’s largest city due to allegations of ballot stuffing, sending voters repeatedly back to the polls and thrusting Bridgeport into an unflattering national spotlight.

Many frustrated local voters say they just want it settled for good.

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A do-over general election on Tuesday will mark the fourth time registered Democrats have voted for the city's next mayor, after the judge voided the initial primary over surveillance footage that appears to show a supporter of incumbent Mayor Joe Ganim putting multiple absentee ballots into a drop box.

For those counting, there have now been two primaries and one general election, which didn’t count.

“It’s very embarrassing,” said Luis DeJesus, 56, a lifelong Bridgeport resident who previously had voted for the main challenger in those races, John Gomes.

DeJesus said he is “really fed up” with the past results in which Ganim appeared to have won — and likely won’t vote again on Tuesday.

“I'm really sorry. I can't do it," he said. “I can't do it for only one person.”

Ganim went to prison for corruption during his first stint as mayor and then regained his old job eight years ago in a remarkable political comeback. The mayor has denied knowledge of the alleged ballot box stuffing and called for statewide election reforms.

Gomes, who had worked as Ganim’s acting chief administrative officer, successfully sued to overturn the Sept. 12 primary showing he lost to his former boss by 251 votes out of 8,173 cast. That meant the results of the subsequent November general election didn’t count and another primary was held in January, which again was won by Ganim.

Gomes is now running as an independent for the fourth face-off.

It's just the latest election controversy in Bridgeport, a working-class Democratic stronghold of more than 148,000 residents. Accusations of absentee ballot manipulation date back to at least 1986, when five of the city's Democrats were arrested for collecting and possessing other people’s ballots.

This scandal, though, became a national talking point when the drop-box surveillance videos were first made public. Now the subject of multiple investigations, the videos have fueled skepticism about the security of U.S. elections as well as conspiracy theories involving the 2020 presidential election, even as election experts contend what happened in Bridgeport is unique to the city and shouldn't be seen as evidence of widespread problems.

Voter turnout has been relatively steady, albeit low, throughout the prior three elections. But Nick Roussas, owner of Frankie’s Diner, a Bridgeport institution since 1946, said many of his customers are just tired of the ongoing saga.

“There’s election fatigue,” said Roussas, who says he likes both Ganim and Gomes and allows them to campaign in his restaurant.

While he can't vote because he doesn't live in Bridgeport, Roussas said he believes the “city is moving in the right direction,” noting the streets are in better condition, efforts are underway to address blight and there has been new economic development.

To date, there have been no charges or arrests over the ballot mishandling allegations that resulted in this protracted mayoral race. That lack of accountability has only worsened voter apathy, cynicism and disenfranchisement among voters, said Callie Gale Heilmann, founder, president and co-director of Bridgeport Generation Now Votes, a local social action network that is supporting Gomes’ candidacy.

After recently sending texts to supporters urging them to vote for a fourth time, the group received responses such as “I’m not voting,” “I voted the other times, and it doesn’t matter” and “Gomes should accept that he lost."

“There’s the sense that it doesn’t matter,” said Gemeem Davis, the organization's vice president and co-director. “The people who get up on Election Day and walk to the polls to make their voices heard, they don’t matter. And it’s because the political culture around here, around absentee ballots, has dehumanized folks. ... Because it’s not even about what they want. It’s about how to get their ballot.”

Bridgeport Generation Now Votes is reminding voters that the court determined there was enough evidence to order a new primary and “redo democracy,” Heilmann said.

“And aren't we so lucky that we can? Because in authoritarian dictatorships, you most certainly cannot,” she said. "The elections are stolen and then that’s it.”

Despite the controversy surrounding his campaign, Ganim, who accused the Gomes campaign of also committing election law violations, has managed to shore up key support for another term in the closing days. Democratic U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, as well as U.S. Rep. Jim Himes have endorsed Ganim, as well as Lamond Daniels, a former Democratic rival for mayor.

Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont announced he is backing Ganim as well. Last week Lamont, who in 2018 defeated Ganim in a Democratic primary for governor in every community except Bridgeport, publicly endorsed his former rival, citing their “strong working relationship.”

“He’s a good mayor for me to work with. We’re getting a lot done together. I hope he’s given another four years," Lamont said during a ceremony for a new technical high school in Bridgeport. His running mate, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, appeared at a get-out-the-vote rally for Ganim on Saturday.

Aside from Gomes, Ganim faces Republican David Herz in Tuesday's election.

Brian Carey, 70, a resident of Bridgeport for more than 30 years and an independent, has now voted in two general elections for mayor, since only Democrats can vote in the primaries. Last week, he filled out his absentee ballot at City Hall.

“If you don’t vote, you can’t complain," said Carey, who declined to say he who voted for.

He has hope Bridgeport elections will change for the better after being in the spotlight.

“You go through phases and you have issues with certain politicians, both local and national,” Carey said. “I’m hoping that after this round, we won’t have any more silliness.”

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