Finding Ernie Newton
By Jesse Duthrie
Ernie Newton is three feet away from me. He’s wearing a three piece striped suit with 10, no, twenty buttons. On his head he’s wearing a taqiyah, a round hat Muslim men wear to substitute for a turban. I’m reminded that he once called himself the “Moses of his people.” He’s flashing his bright, wide grin. He looks every bit the part of the people’s politician.
I scroll back a page on my web browser. Newton’s no longer three feet away from me. He’s left the page, the room, the city. It’s been weeks and I’ve made no contact with one of the most interesting political figures in all of Connecticut.
It’s hard to trace the early days of Newton without finding a way to speak to him. From what I gathered online, Newton was born in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. He later earned a B.S. in Music Education in 1978 from Winston-Salem University in North Carolina. What is known is that from 1981 on, Newton settled down in Bridgeport and hit the political game running. By 1982 he was the President of the Bridgeport Board of Aldermen, a member of the Bridgeport Democratic Town Committee, and a member of the Bridgeport City Council.
Still it wasn’t until the nineties that Ernie Newton hit his stride. In 1995 he was elected to the Connecticut House of Representatives. In 2003 he became a State senator, and in his term as senator he acted as the Deputy President Pro Tempore- an honorary position of increased salary and responsibility. Representing a racially diverse city like Bridgeport, Ernie Newton stood as a model for African American politicians who started from the bottom and worked their way up to the top.
But in 2006, Ernie Newton suffered a major setback when he racked up nine felony counts that included five counts of wire fraud, three counts of making false statements to the FBI, and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Wire fraud, a crime that’s heard in the political realm but often left undefined, is the situation where a person concocts a scheme to defraud or obtain money based on false representation or promises. This criminal act is done using electronic communication or interstate communication facilities. For his crimes, Newton served four years in federal prison and some time in a halfway house to transition back into society.
Upon release in 2010, it didn’t take long for him to attract attention. He made a televised public address during which he announced his campaign to run for state senate in the 2012 election. People came out en masse to denounce the ex-felon from Bridgeport.
And it’s here that I’m actually able to start seeing Ernie Newton. In my apartment, with the lights bright, my notes scribbled in front of me, the journalists, videographers, bloggers, and citizens of Connecticut forge together to wield their opinions back and forth. On YouTube there are video postings of the day he’s released and the message of his goal to run for office. On the Hartford Courant Blogs there are cynical and harsh posts from citizens mocking a convicted felon’s attempt to restart his life in the political realm. Hardly can I find praise of the work of Newton’s earlier years; instead the Internet pages are loaded with debate over having a convicted felon running for office.
It made me wonder if he had any sort of shot at office. It reminded me of Marion Barry, the famous Washington D.C. politician, arrested in 1990 in an F.B.I. sting operation and later charged with three counts of perjury, 10 counts of drug possession, and one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to possess cocaine. Like Newton, Barry served time in Federal prison, and, by 1994, was able to regain his seat as Mayor of D.C. He left the seat in 1998 and has held a seat in the Washington, D.C. City Council since 2004.
Through contacts at the Institute of Municipal and Regional Policy, I tracked down a few leads on Ernie Newton. Meanwhile, I try to scan websites for his whereabouts. He doesn’t have a website and there’s no contact information; this is odd. Most politicians in the 21St Century need to be hardlined to the net to make connections for donations,media access, and other social ventures. But there’s no phone numbers I can reach, no political office I can drive to. It’s as if Ernie Newton got out of prison, walked down to the middle of downtown Bridgeport, started shaking hands with the people, and decided this was how he was going to campaign his way back into to office.
If that was his decision, to campaign on the streets instead of through TVs and websites, it was working. Newton won the Bridgeport Democratic nomination over Ed Gomes. This is the same Ed Gomes who took over Newton’s seat when Newton was incarcerated in 2005.
For a moment it seemed possible that this ex-convict, a Connecticut-Marion Barry, could reclaim his seat, dust off his prior sins, and exemplify the meaning of “rehabilitation.”
Still, one last challenger stood in the way of Newton. His name was Andres Ayala Jr. Running on the Republican ticket, Ayala, like Newton, was a minority, which matters in a town like Bridgeport where 30 percent of the population is African American and 31.9 percent are Hispanic. Where Newton would favorably take more African American votes, Ayala Jr. would likely garner more Hispanic votes because of his Latino heritage and involvement in the Latino community. In Bridgeport, he was the Founder and Co-Chairman Hispanic Heritage Foundation, and his work in the Latino community went as high as the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) and the National Puerto Rican Coalition (NPRC). The race could have been very close, and would have been very close, until Gomes announced his decision to run on the “Working Families” ticket. With the divided black vote between Gomes and Newton, as well as the increased popularity of Ayala and the skepticism of Newton after his 2006 incarceration, Ayala won the 23rd Senate Democratic Primary.
In the weeks that followed Ayala’s victory, I never found out what happened to Newton. One employee at the IMRP who had connections down in Bridgeport tried to get in contact with Newton for several weeks. By the time I finally pressured him into a meeting, the last thing he said was, “I got a hold of somebody who knows his sister who said she can maybe put you in contact with him.”
I would not get to speak to Newton.
As the 2012 election comes closer, it made me wonder who Ernie Newton would vote for in the Senate position. Both Linda McMahon and Chris Murphy have aired negative T.V. ads about how their opponent has made financially irresponsible decisions. They argue that neither is good for the future of the country’s economy. It made me wonder if Newton was at home, watching the ads and reflecting on his own decisions to financially fraud the system. Who would he vote for Connecticut Senator? Of course, it doesn’t matter because Ernie Newton, still under parole, will not get to vote this term.