Ernie Newton is positioning himself to be the comeback kid.
Seven years after resigning from the Connecticut state Senate amid a corruption scandal and two years after returning home from a stint in federal prison, Newton, 56, is attempting to reclaim his old seat in the 23rd senatorial District.
He is battling two fellow Democrats in the upcoming Aug. 14 primary: The incumbent, Sen. Edwin Gomes, and state Rep. Andres Ayala, Jr., D-128, who is endorsed by the city administration.
Newton, who has the Democratic Town Committee’s endorsement, is running on a theme of redemption and is advocating for felons’ rights as he campaigns.
“Everyone knows, is related to, someone who is a felon. Someone that’s tried to work, but can’t,” said Newton.
Before his 2005 resignation from the Senate, Newton was a fixture in both local and state politics for 24 years. A graduate of Winton-Salem State University and a former teacher, Newton ran for Bridgeport City Council in 1981, and shortly thereafter became City Council president. He was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1989, where he served as assistant majority leader, deputy majority leader and deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. He was sworn into the state Senate in 2003.
Two years later, he was forced to resign and in 2006, he was convicted of accepting a $5,000 bribe, tax evasion and illegally using campaign contributions. Later, he served three and a half years in federal prison and six months in a halfway house. He returned to Bridgeport two years ago.
“I came back home in 2010 and I just wasn’t happy with what I saw,” he said. “I saw a community which had gotten worse.”
Newton was particularly incensed by the 2011 redistricting, a process conducted by the state legislature based on the findings of the 2010 U.S. Census. The redistricting moved thousands of voters out of the 23rd District and into the 22nd, currently represented in the Senate by Sen. Anthony Musto, D-Trumbull.
“Edwin Gomes and Andres Ayala sat back and allowed the legislature to disenfranchise 6,000 African Americans and Latinos by putting (them) in the 22nd District,” said Newton. He said it was unfair that those voters would now be represented by Musto.
“He voted against the minimum wage,” said Newton.
Newton said it was the redistricting, which was also decried by the NAACP, that caused him to run for office again.
Newton’s big issues are jobs, taxes, and making the community feel safe again. Newton says that Bridgeport needs “an urban agenda.” He believes that large infrastructure projects like transportation projects are necessary to create jobs for the area’s unemployed, and said there are funds for such projects in Hartford that could be used to put people back to work. He also said he’d like to see the city concentrate on helping small business owners rather than pursuing large projects.
“We need to take care of home first,” he said.
He’s also said that he’s running for office not only to regain his Senate seat, but to advocate for the rights of felons. He compared the struggle for felons’ rights to the civil rights movement and to the quest for same-sex marriage.
“It’s time for someone to bring attention about felons. Because any time you hold a person back because of their past, it’s discrimination,” said Newton, who currently works in the detox unit at Recovery Network of Programs, Inc., a non-profit, social service agency.
“Once a man has paid his debt to society, they ought to be free,” said Newton. “You shouldn’t pay forever.”
His opponent, Gomes, who took office after Newton’s resignation and is now the incumbent, holds a different view.
“I am all for redemption and forgiveness, but not reward,” he said in a statement.
“Mr. Newton violated the public trust and took bribes and campaign monies for the very same office he is now running for. He has expressed no remorse or humility and acts like he is entitled to this seat.”
Gomes, like Newton, lists jobs and small business among his top campaign issues. Two of his other main issues are housing and education.
“I wish Ernie no ill will and hope he goes on to be a productive and honest citizen,” said Gomes, “but I do not think he has earned a return to Hartford to the very seat he so disgraced and I have worked so hard to restore to honor.”
Ayala did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Asked what accomplishments in his legislative career he’s been most proud of, Newton cited the ban on assault weapons and the fact that a black female judge was sworn in during his time in office — he had advocated for minority judges. He also worked on the law that allows convicted felons on probation to vote, a bill that was signed into law in 2001 by then-Gov. John Rowland.
Newton said he’s happy to be on the campaign trail again.
“This has been an exciting comeback,” he said. “The number one thing I’ve heard from people is ‘when you were away, we prayed for you.’”
He is thrilled that his former constituents didn’t forget him and he is confident they will vote for him again.
“They knew they had a voice (in the Senate),” he said. “We haven’t had a voice in a long time.”