Dennis Bradley’s broke, not broken
BRIDGEPORT — Senate candidate Dennis Bradley has threatened Connecticut’s elections watchdogs with legal action after they denied him a $95,710 campaign grant.
“I am hopeful the State Elections Enforcement Commission will ... reverse their decision,” Bradley, a Democrat, said in a statement accompanying a letter from his attorney, R. Bartley Halloran, that alleges flaws in the decision to bar Bradley’s participation in the so-called clean elections program.
“But if they do not (reverse their decision), I have every intention of fully litigating this overstep based on the facts and the law,” Bradley said.
Whether or not Bradley was unfairly deprived of the grant, his campaign for the 23rd Senate District probably does not need the state’s money. His self-funding Republican opponent, John Rodriguez, does not have deep pockets or a campaign infrastructure, or demographics — the district is heavily Democratic — on his side.
“As a God fearing man, a Christian man, I’m saying, ‘Lord, it doesn’t look too good over here,’ ” admitted Rodriguez.
His recent campaign finance filings with the SEEC all show zeroes — nothing raised, nothing spent. Rodriguez said he might invest around $1,500 in photocopied fliers and a family-recorded robo-call.
“I’m a good customer at Staples (office supplies),” he joked.
Meanwhile, Bradley, according to his paperwork on file with the SEEC, has spent $101,691 — $84,140 of that a clean elections grant he received for the summer’s primary race against fellow Democrat Aaron Turner.
“Oh my word,” Rodriguez said of that $101,691 total. “Look at that — wow.”
And since the state’s rules for distributing the grants only contemplate whether candidates face a major party, minor party, or no opponent — not party dominance or a particular candidate’s chances of winning — Bradley could have received another $95,710.
But two weeks ago the SEEC whitheld the funds after concluding Bradley broke the grant program’s rules. So now Bradley’s campaign is, technically, broke — even in debt by $1,274.
In another race, the SEEC’s decision might have crippled Bradley’s Senate bid — or, at the least, leveled the playing field.
“In a more equitable environment, it’s a competitive race,” said Bridgeport Republican Town Chairman Mike Garrett. “But as long as we’re in Bridgeport, there’s a demographic disadvantage. Does John Rodriguez deserve to win? Yes. Do the demographics favor him? No.”
Connecticut’s clean elections program — which provides substantive state grants to candidates who qualify by raising small contributions from individuals — was established following then-Republican Gov. John Rowland’s pay-to-play scandal.
Proponents argue the grants help keep special interest money out of politics and free candidates from focusing on fundraising. Critics counter the program is unaffordable, and its future has been debated by elected officials during tough budget years.
The SEEC, following an investigation, concluded that Bradley, in part through his Bridgeport law firm, made or incurred prohibited campaign expenditures.
Bradley said the issues surrounding the SEEC’s decision are not about whether he needs the money to win his race against Rodriguez.
“It’s not about $95,000; it’s about equality,” Bradley said. He insisted that the SEEC unfairly targets Bridgeport, which has a reputation for having produced its share of corrupt politicians.
Bradley’s campaign manager, Jason Bartlett, also this week blasted the SEEC’s decision as driven by racial bias toward not just Bradley but “the people of Bridgeport and the majority minority district he will represent once elected.”
The SEEC declined to comment on Bartlett’s charges or on Bradley’s and Halloran’s demands the $95,710 grant be released.
So how would Bradley spend that money? He said on voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, and on educating 23rd District residents on why they should vote for him beyond his party affiliation.
“If I don’t get a chance to message those things, what are (voters) holding me accountable to do?” Bradley said.
Give it back
Bradley admitted that perhaps there should be new guidelines placed on the amounts of state money provided candidates in certain districts, depending on the competitiveness of their races. He noted that the clean elections program also helped pay for a 23rd Senate District primary between Rodriguez and Casimir Mizera. Mizera qualified for a $39,410 primary grant, and lost.
“We need to revamp how we use that money,” Bradley said.
How that would be done is a complicated question.
Cheri Quickmire is executive director of Common Cause, a good-government nonprofit. She supports the clean elections program, but said the problem with placing new limits on the grants is that there are unknowns that the SEEC is unable to predict.
One example, Quickmire said, is whether an outside entity is willing to invest in a candidate. For example, Build CT, funded by pro-charter school advocate and Walmart heiress Alice Walton, spent thousands of dollars in support of Bradley’s state Senate bid — money that is separate from the $101,691 Bradley reported spending.
“Until we have legislation that changes the rules, independent expenditures can swoop in and drop millions of dollars,” Quickmire said.
And, she added, since Connecticut law allows same-day voter registration, a particular candidate who might at first appear to be an underdog could, potentially, “suddenly register 100,000 (voters).”
Quickmire noted candidates who wind up not needing to spend some of their clean elections money have the option of returning it.
“You could give it back at the end,” she said. “That’s what some people do.”