The Chosen One
Peter Hvizdak / New Haven Register
Felons are people, too.
Just ask former Bridgeport State Sen. Ernie Newton, who two years ago completed a five-year hitch in the joint on bribery and tax charges and now seeks re-election to his old seat in an Aug. 14 Democratic primary. Newton stunned Connecticut political observers in May when he got the party endorsement over state legislative incumbents Rep. Andres Ayala Jr. and Sen. Ed Gomes, who’d won the seat in a special election following Newton’s resignation in 2005.
“I’ve been the Moses of my people,” Newton proclaimed then. “I’m grateful today that when God needed somebody to stand up, he chose me.”
At Newton’s sentencing, U.S. District Judge Alan Nevas didn’t quite see it that way. “I served in the General Assembly for six years,” said Nevas, Connecticut’s U.S. Attorney prior to his appointment to the federal bench, during Newton’s sentencing. “It’s inconceivable to me that anyone who works in the General Assembly could make a business out of it, and that’s what you did.”
Nevas sent Newton away for 60 months. But Newton never really went away, not spiritually, emotionally or politically. Not from Bridgeport, at least. He served time in a New Jersey federal prison camp (the lowest security level in the Federal Bureau of Prisons), and plotted his comeback. Upon his return he wasted no time in letting political operatives know that he would run for his old Senate seat in the 23rd District, which includes most of Bridgeport and a portion of Stratford.
Who is Ernie Newton? Before entering politics he studied political science and music at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina and was a music teacher in Bridgeport schools. He won election to the city’s legislative body at 25 and then was voted president by his peers. Along the way he clothed his stringy body in a wide array of metallic colors, and dazzled folks with his own Newtonian syntax—fiscal year, for instance, became “fisical year”—that also ranged from Biblical references to a laborer’s coarseness. Newton also went to great lengths to reinterpret his powers as conveyed by the Bridgeport City Charter.
There was the day 30 years ago when Republican Mayor Leonard Paoletta was away for a few days. The city charter states the head of the legislative body takes over if the mayor is incapacitated. Newton interpreted this to mean that he could take over the mayor’s office. After much yelling and screaming between the mayoral staff and Newton, he was persuaded to leave; the mayor was just a phone call away.
Newton won election to the General Assembly, where he served for more than a decade while grappling with the substance abuse that led to his hitting bottom and subsequent climb back to sobriety. In 2003, following the death of state senator Alvin Penn, he won a special election over Ed Gomes. Newton was now one of just 36 in the senate, and he let everyone know—on court-authorized wiretaps—that he was the man. The feds nailed him, he entered a plea, did his time and now he’s back.
Redemption and opportunity is Newton’s campaign battle cry and he enjoys core support from relationships he’s built over decades and from former constituents seeking second chances. If he wins election, he’ll do so while still on federal probation, which raises an often-parroted question: Can Newton, as a felon, vote?
In Connecticut ex-cons may vote provided they’re not incarcerated and have satisfied all court-ordered fines and restitution. Prior to 1998, felons on probation could not vote. A change was signed into law by then Governor John Rowland (who would have his own legal battles) at the urging of—Ernie Newton.
As the once-and-possibly-future senator sees it, he made some bad decisions, did his time and is now looking to the future. “That’s why,” he says, “they put erasers on pencils.”
Lennie Grimaldi is host of the daily webzine OnlyInBridgeport.com.