The state's largest labor coalition, the Connecticut AFL-CIO, overwhelmingly threw its support Wednesday to Democrat Elizabeth Esty in the 5th Congressional District race, further dimming the campaign prospects of state House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan.
"Based on her record and her commitment to stand up for the issues that working families care about, we believe that Elizabeth Esty is the best candidate" in the 5th District, said John W. Olsen, president of the coalition's Connecticut chapter.
Olsen, who met with reporters after a closed meeting of the chapter's political committee at United Auto Workers union headquarters in Farmington, said Esty's involvement in the fight to save jobs at the Cheshire Pratt & Whitney plant, her votes on issues such as health care reform and education, and her support for collective bargaining rights were all factors leading to the endorsement.
"There weren't really any negative comments about her," he said after the 90-minute meeting, which was attended by most of the committee's 80 members. Olsen didn't disclose full details of the vote, but he said that Esty received "well over" the two-thirds' margin needed to win the group's backing. "It was clear there was an overwhelming endorsement of Esty."
A former state representative from Cheshire, Esty said later, "I'm honored to have the endorsement of the hardworking men and women of the Connecticut AFL-CIO. It couldn't be more clear how much is at stake in this year's election. Workers' rights are under attack across the country."
Esty added, "I'm looking forward to working with the Connecticut AFL-CIO to fight for the fair paychecks, safe workplaces, reliable benefits and collective bargaining rights" and to protect Social Security and Medicare.
It was crucial for the labor federation to settle its nomination now, given that it likely will be a "bruising campaign" in the 5th District, where many pundits predict a close race between Esty and Republican state Sen. Andrew W. Roraback of Goshen, Olsen said.
Esty came from behind in the final weeks before her Democratic primary win over Donovan and Dan Roberti of Kent.
Donovan, 58, of Meriden was a labor organizer before his election to the state House 20 years ago. He was co-chairman of the Labor and Public Employees Committee before becoming majority leader and then speaker, and he has arguably been labor's staunchest ally over that period.
But his status as the clear early favorite crashed this summer after federal authorities indicted two of his highest-ranking campaign officials -- among others -- on charges that they conspired to hide contributions from businesses hoping to derail legislation that would change how state government taxes roll-your-own cigarette operations.
Donovan, who has insisted repeatedly he was unaware of those efforts and never helped to hide contributions or agreed to trade political influence for campaign funding, has been quiet since the primary.
The speaker said afterward he would take some time off. A minor party in the state with strong labor ties, the Working Families Party, has nominated Donovan, and he still could run for the 5th District seat, appearing only on the WFP line on the ballot.
His campaign has not yet indicated if the speaker will take that course, nor did it respond Wednesday to the AFL-CIO's decision to switch its endorsement to Esty.
But Olsen said Wednesday that he and many others in labor think it would be best for Donovan to sit out this race, even though they still trust in him.
"There's no one in there who doesn't think highly of him," Olsen said. "There's no one in there" who thinks Donovan is guilty.
The labor leader added that the scandal hit him and others like "a kick in the gut," but the best chance for labor's platform in the 5th District race now rests with Esty. "This isn't about Chris Donovan," he said. "This is about the 5th Congressional District."
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy stopped short of calling for Donovan to leave the race Wednesday morning, but when asked about the matter by Capitol reporters, the governor said, "I think Democrats, Republicans and independents should vote for Elizabeth Esty."