Litchfield — One thing became clear Saturday at the raucous conclusion of a dry debate: Elizabeth Esty and Dan Roberti are desperately fighting each other for every Democrat who may have written off the wounded congressional campaign of House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan.
The dynamics of a three-way race for the Democratic nomination in the 5th District drove the new ad Esty launched Friday against Roberti and the criticism she leveled Saturday in the debate’s closing minutes about the money suddenly flowing to back the political newcomer’s candidacy.
Left untouched was the man in the middle, Donovan, who has faced editorial calls for him to drop out. No one capitalized on his significant troubles: An indictment accusing two top former campaign aides and five others of conspiring to make illegal contributions to his campaign.
Donovan smiled as Esty and Roberti clashed at the library here in a room so small that the public was discouraged from attending by the sponsor, the League of Women Voters. It was recorded for broadcast at 7:30 p.m. by the public affairs network, CT-N. It also can be viewed on the network’s website.
While reporters talked to Roberti and Esty after the debate about their confrontation, Donovan left unnoticed, leaving his spokesman, Gabe Rosenberg, to cast Donovan as above the fray in what has been Connecticut’s most compelling political contest.
“You had two millionaires on the stage who put more than a half-million dollars each into their campaign, and one guy with a record of fighting for 30 years for Connecticut’s working families,” Rosenberg said. “He’s going to run on that record. He’s going to win on that record.”
Donovan was the consensus front-runner for the nomination until May 31, when federal authorities disclosed they were investigating if Donovan’s campaign staff was trading on his legislative post. The race is now seen as too volatile to call, with Donovan damaged by the scandal, but accused of no wrongdoing.
In recent weeks, money has flowed freely into the race for Connecticut’s only open congressional seat, mainly from the candidates themselves, as the campaigns make their final push before the primaries on Aug. 14. A Super PAC backing Roberti also is airing a TV commercial attacking Esty and Donovan.
In campaign finance reports covering most of July, Esty reported loaning her campaign $500,000, while Roberti provided his campaign with $580,500, money that he says came from a family trust established by his father, Vincent Roberti, a former state legislator from Bridgeport who reinvented himself as a movie producer and Washington powerbroker.
Esty, a former one-term state legislator, is a lawyer married to Dan Esty, the commissioner of energy and environmental protection. He also is a Yale professor who had a lucrative career as an author, speaker and business consultant.
As the clock wound down Saturday afternoon on the one-hour debate in the Oliver Wolcott Library, Esty turned on Roberti as she answered a question about the banking crisis.
“This is one where I think I have to point something out: Mr. Roberti is a co-owner of a lobbying firm. Citibank — Citicorp — is one of his clients. Citicorp is one of the banks that was responsible for the mess we’re in,” Esty said.
Esty acknowledged later the question provided an awkward opening to talk about ethics and the flow of money into the race, but she said it was clear that the debate was about to wind down. So, she said, she decided to press Roberti.
“Mr. Roberti, who has no work history in this state, who has no service history in this state, has launched a Super PAC in this state dedicated to buying him a seat in Congress, attacking me and Mr. Donovan, something we have never seen before,” Esty said.
“I am not a lobbyist,” Roberti said. “Shame on you for making that lie like that.”
Esty’s assertion is based on the financial disclosure statement required of candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives: It shows Roberti as the beneficiary of a trust that owns 50 percent of his father’s lobbying business.
But Roberti, the candidate, never has been a lobbyist.
Roberti complained that he let Esty talk about the environment without mentioning that some of her donors work for companies regulated by her husband’s agency.
Donovan, meanwhile, left as he arrived — without publicly addressing details of a federal indictment that describes his campaign manager as discussing with a legislative staffer the status of a tobacco bill at the heart of the federal investigation.
He has declined to answer questions about the investigation or how he and his staff may have handled a bill to impose fees on roll-your-own cigarettes — the issue that federal authorities say attracted contributions from smoke shop owners.
His only reference to the scandal was indirect as he talked in closing remarks about his history of pushing progressive causes, such as increasing the minimum wage and requiring businesses to provide paid sick days.
“Now, the last couple of months have not been the greatest. People have been questioning what I am about,” Donovan said. “But I’ve never let people down. I can look you straight in the eye and say I have never let people down.”