Southbury — House Speaker Chris Donovan endorsed an expansion of Medicare and a voluntary ban on negative ads at a forum Sunday for the four candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in the 5th Congressional District. Elizabeth Esty is with him on Medicare, not so much on the ad pledge.

Esty was the only one of four Democrats who didn’t embrace the local party’s call to swear off negative ads, an idea that Donovan rushed to endorse in a news release emailed to reporters while the candidates still were on stage. She saw no need.

“I will only talk about honest things. I think we all have records, and I am proud of mine, and I will defend my record and promote it,” said Esty, a former Cheshire councilwoman and one-term state legislator. “I don’t think that’s negative.”

Donovan Roberti Esty Yale

From left, Donovan, Roberti, Esty and Yale

As the speaker of the state House of Representatives, Donovan is the best known candidate in the field and has a two-decade legislative record to promote and defend as he pursues the nomination for Connecticut’s only open congressional seat.

“We’re all Democrats, and we want to win this seat,” said Donovan, who urged the candidates to agree to swear off negative ads and to voluntarily pay a “fine” equal to half the cost of negative ads run by an outside group on their behalf.

“I want to put some teeth into it to make sure we don’t beat each other down that we concentrate on fighting the Republicans,” he said.

Donovan, Esty and two newcomers, Daniel Roberti and Randy Yale, ambled through the 90-minute forum at Pomperaug Regional High School like baseball players stretching at spring training.

It was an opportunity to limber up and hone talking points, not to swing for the fences. They glided through immigration, energy policy, the deficit, atrocities in Syria and the tense U.S. relationship with Iran without disagreement.

Strategists for the candidates said it’s a long season, building toward a convention in May, a primary in August and the general election in November.

The quartet, who are competing to succeed U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, a  U.S. Senate candidate, was on stage together for the first time.

All four praised Murphy and President Obama, even as they pronounced Washington to be dysfunctional. They pledged to preserve Social Security and Medicare, whose long-term financial health are uncertain.

John Dankosky, the news director of WNPR radio, moderated the forum, posing his own questions and those from an audience of more than 50 people.

No one seriously tackled an audience question about how to slow the increasing costs of Medicare. In fact, Donovan called for an expansion, without saying precisely how.

“Medicare is actually one of the best health care programs we have in this country, and we need to protect it,” Donovan said. “There are those who talk about cutting it. I’m not talking about cutting it. I think we have to expand the services that are in Medicare.”

Esty also would expand coverage, at least to cover care that could prevent expensive medical complications.

“We pay to cut off the diabetic foot, but we don’t pay for the insulin,” Esty said. “We have a messed up system.”

Donovan and Esty are the only candidates to hold elective office.

Roberti, a former social services director in a homeless shelter, is the son of a Washington power broker, but he is offering himself as “a fresh voice, a new approach to Congress.”

“My background is a unique background,” said the 29-year-old Roberti, the youngest in the race. “I spent my life working with people whom the government has turned their back on, the people the government has forgotten.”

Yale, an insurance underwriter who moved to Connecticut in 2006, is the latest to join the Democratic field. He is the chairman of the Cheshire Environment Commission.

Donovan, Esty and Roberti have a head start in raising money and lining up support. Each had about $500,000 cash on hand as of Dec. 31, the close of the last campaign finance reporting period.

“You know a lot about them,” Yale said, acknowledging some have suggested he is crazy for jumping into the race. He smiled and said, “The truth is I am crazy.”

Yale said his candidacy is a protest against the influence of big money.

“Money has become a cancer on the body politic,” Yale said. On that score, he is the picture of health: alone among the four candidates, he has yet report raising any money.

Like Roberti and Yale, Esty took on the mantle of outsider.

“I am not a professional politician,” Esty said in her opening statement. “I am a mom. I’m an attorney. And, like many of you in this audience, I’ve been active for years in the life of my community.”

Implicit in her opening was the suggestion that Donovan is a professional politician. But that was the closest she came to criticizing him.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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