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Election Fraud Has Long Been An Issue In Bridgeport. The Unrig Coalition Seeks To Address It.

Bridgeport, Connecticut, City Hall
Jerry Dougherty
Wikimedia Commons
Bridgeport, Connecticut, City Hall

A Bridgeport City Council member resigned last month after he became the third elected official indicted on federal election fraud charges this year. A group of local activists is concerned that the latest arrests reflect a culture of political corruption in Connecticut’s largest city.

The group called the #UnrigBridgeport Coalition is challenging the Democratic Town Committee system that has controlled Bridgeport politics for decades. The coalition includes the Greater Bridgeport NAACP, SEIU 1199 New England, and the Working Families Party. It claims the committee is responsible for the recent corruption scandals in the city.

The scandals include the indictment of Council member Michael DeFillopo on charges of absentee ballot fraud. In May, state Senator Dennis Bradley and Board of Education member Jessica Martinez were charged with campaign finance fraud.

Gemeem Davis, the coalition’s co-director, claims absentee ballot fraud is endemic in Bridgeport. She challenges how the city monitors the canvassing for absentee ballots.

“The absentee ballot process here in Bridgeport has been completely rigged to manipulate elections here in Bridgeport,” Davis told WSHU’s Capitol Avenue podcast. “So the will of the people has been going unheard and unmet really for decades.”

Davis was the campaign manager for state Senator Marilyn Moore’s failed challenge to incumbent Mayor Joe Ganim two years ago. Ganim returned as mayor in 2016 after serving seven years in federal prison for corruption during his first time as mayor.

In 2019, Ganim lost to Moore at the polls by 384 votes in the Democratic Party primary, but won the mail-in absentee ballots by 654 votes. Moore challenged the election in court seeking a redo of the primary and lost.

The judge found that even though evidence was presented to corroborate Moore’s accusation that people were illegally paid to canvas for absentee ballots in certain neighborhoods, the number of ballots solicited were not enough to change the result of the election.

Davis said that's a problem specifically in Bridgeport.

“This manipulation of the absentee ballot process that targets low income monolingual Spanish speaking elderly and youth really has done a number on our democracy,” Davis said. “And our citizens and voters don't have confidence in our democracy.”

Mario Testa, the longtime chair of Bridgeport’s Democratic Town Committee, mentored both Ganim and DeFillipo. In 2019 when the primary election was challenged, he said there was nothing wrong with the city’s absentee ballot system.

“We have the reputation about absentee ballot fraud and all that. There’s none of that going,” said Testa, dismissing criticism of the town committee for promoting the use of absentee ballots. “As long as you don’t touch them and are not doing anything, why are you taking the people’s rights? That’s their constitutional right to vote. They are the ones who elect the president. They are the ones who elect the governor.”

But those disputes over absentee ballots in 2019 is what UnrigBridgeport was founded on.

Davis said a recent survey by the group found voter apathy and distrust of the system.

“People in Bridgeport know very well what the issues are and where problems lie. But what they really feel is that their vote doesn't matter,” Davis said. “And in addition to their vote not mattering. The real problem of people not having access to voting for those reasons of people are busy, they're at work, and so forth and so on."

“That’s the reason why we launched our Unrig Bridgeport campaign,” added Callie Gale Hielmann, co-director of #UnrigBridgeport.

She said they’ll work to elect candidates for City Council this fall who endorse their agenda.

“I think what we really understand is that the closed system of our local politics here in Bridgeport, where power is concentrated at the top, and then sort of crumbs are distributed around our city is a real driver of low voter turnout,” Hielmann said.

Heilmann claims their agenda is based on voter concerns.

“A lot of our work is about shifting power in the other direction,” she said. “So that the power comes up from the people and informs the issues that candidates then work on.”

The first test of how much voter support there is for the coalition will come next month when the seats on the City Council, the board of education and the sheriff’s office will be on the ballot for the party primaries.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.