BRIDGEPORT — When former state Sen. Ernie Newton campaigned door-to-door recently here in his hometown, not a single person asked about the federal prison term he served on felony charges in a political corruption scandal.
No one asked about an additional seven criminal charges that are still pending against him in a separate case of campaign finance fraud.
And no one asked about his bold statement, in the pouring rain before pleading guilty in 2005 to three felonies, that he was “the Moses of my people.’’
Instead, Newton was greeted on the campaign trail as a conquering hero with hugs and waves from people he has known all his life.
Newton’s past and current brushes with the law, they said, would not stop them from voting for Newton again as he battles to regain his old state House of Representatives seat in the Aug. 12 Democratic primary. Newton served for 17 years in the state legislature before heading to prison, and he recently won the Democratic party’s endorsement in his hometown for his old seat.
He is now facing challenger Andre Baker, a former eight-year city council member who was the highest vote-getter for the city’s school board. Baker was forced to gather signatures to get a spot on the ballot, but he is backed by House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, who once served with Newton in the House and is now clashing with his former colleague. Baker has raised nearly twice as much money as Newton, but they both agree that the door-to-door campaigning will make the difference in the impoverished, high-crime district.
The outspoken Newton freely admits that he has had problems with the law, but he rejects critics who decry his ethics and criminal violations.
“They sound self-righteous. We call them, in the Bible, Pharisees and Sadducees,’’ Newton said in an interview. “I don’t care what the Pharisees in Hartford say.’’
After spending nearly five years in prison and a halfway house for accepting $5,000 in cash bribes and other crimes, Newton says he is not apologizing to his constituents or anyone.
“No, I did that,’’ Newton said. “It’s over. I’m not doing that no more because I’ve been forgiven.’’
As he walked easily down Willow Street in a hardscrabble section of the city’s East End, Newton recognized a man who was sitting in the driver’s seat of a white van that was parked in his short driveway.
“What’s up, big man?’’ Newton shouted as the two waved to each other. “I need y’all to vote.’’
The man in the van, 47-year-old Joseph Setal, said the pending criminal charges would not deter him from voting for Newton.
“Everybody know Mr. Newton,’’ Setal said as he sat in the van. “Mr. Newton is famous. Mr. Newton is for the people. I think people love him around here.’’
Newton was campaigning in a stronghold of his district on a street with attached homes on small lots. Both sides of the street have broken sidewalks that the residents said have not been repaired during the tenures of the past three Bridgeport mayors. They asked Newton whether he could help obtain money to fix the sidewalks if he is elected once again to the legislature, and he said he would.
Newton, who served in both the House and the Senate at different times, was certainly in friendly territory in a hard-core Democratic district where a public list of more than 250 registered voters on Willow Street showed only 11 Republicans.
Farther down the street, a woman hugged Newton warmly when he approached her and talked about his last campaign. A man came out of a nearby house, and Newton exclaimed, “You look just like your dad, man!”
It seemed like everyone on the street knew Newton, and he knew them. A smooth, veteran, experienced campaigner, Newton easily saunters down the block, bantering with an 89-year-old woman and younger citizens in the street. He said he understood the positive reception, despite having served time for accepting bribes, evading taxes, and pilfering campaign contributions to pay for car repairs and personal cellphone calls.
Known in his heyday as the flashiest dresser at the state Capitol, the flamboyant Newton sometimes wore a purple suit and became outspoken on drugs after publicly admitting that he was a recovering cocaine addict.
After getting out of prison and losing his first comeback race for state Senate in a tight, three-way battle in 2012, Newton was arrested again. This time it was on felony charges of first-degree larceny and tampering with a witness after prosecutors charged that Newton “submitted false documentation to obtain $80,550’’ from the state’s public financing program to fund his campaign.
He also was charged with five counts of illegal campaign practices in a case that is still pending and could go to trial in December — after the general election. Newton denies the charges and says they should be dismissed because a recently discovered audit showed that he had raised the necessary $15,000 in private funds to qualify for the public money.
Through it all, some supporters in his district have not abandoned the candidate.
“No matter what I’ve been through in life, people love Ernie Newton,’’ Newton said of himself. “Everybody – if you’re honest – has made mistakes in their life. The hypocrites just haven’t been caught.’’
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