Washington — Before former House Speaker Chris Donovan’s campaign was sunk by scandal, the influential political analyst Stuart Rothenberg touted him as the next likely congressman from the 5th Congressional District.
That did not sit well with Elizabeth Esty, one of Donovan’s rivals in the Democratic primary. She sought an appointment with Rothenberg’s staff in Washington.
“She wanted to tell us she was also in the race,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.
Gonzales said Esty’s visit to the Rothenberg Political Report likely raised her profile and snared the attention of the report’s readers who give campaign donations. It also showed Esty’s gritty determination and shrewd political sense.
In time, Esty’s popularity surged as Donovan’s waned, and she won the Democratic primary.
Even with a scandal, “To knock off the leader of a state legislature is not an easy task,” Gonzales said.
Esty, 53, is now using her political skills against her rival in the general election, Republican state Sen. Andrew Roraback, in one of the most competitive House races in the nation.
And the 5th — comprising 41 towns and small cities in western Connecticut — is a true swing district. Although it tilts Democratic, Republicans carried it in the 2010 governor’s race, and it often gives Democratic presidential candidates their smallest pluralities in New England.
“I come from a long line of feisty women, and if we see a problem we think we should try to fix it,” Esty said in a recent interview in the former funeral parlor in Cheshire that now serves as her campaign headquarters.
Esty’s mother was very involved in PFLAG, an organization of parents of gay and lesbian children and eventually became president of the group. Esty’s brother Jamie is gay.
Her mother’s activism “showed Elizabeth the power of committed undertakings to influence people,” said Nan Birdwhistell, an attorney at the law firm Murtha Cullina and a good friend of Esty.
Esty was born in Oak Park, Ill., attending Harvard as an undergraduate and Yale Law School, along the way developing friends and future political supporters. She clerked for a federal judge in Massachusetts and worked at Sidley Austin, a top Washington law firm, while husband Dan Esty worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The couple moved to Connecticut in 1994. Dan Esty now heads Connecticut’s new Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Elizabeth Esty’s political resume includes a seat for four years on the Cheshire Town Council and one term in the state legislature.
She believes she lost re-election to the legislature because she would not abandon her opposition to the death penalty after the gruesome home invasion in Cheshire. But she wasted little time bemoaning that loss and within months set her sights on the 5th House District seat being vacated by Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy, who is running for Senate.
Esty also has a long record in civic activism. Birdwhistell met her about 15 years ago when both women sat on the board of WOWPAC, a political action committee that raises money for progressive, pro-choice women candidates in Connecticut.
“The whole family promotes active service,” Birdwhistell said. “Elizabeth’s 13-year-old daughter would be the one checking people into our meetings.’
Esty’s activism helped her win the coveted endorsement of Emily’s List, an aggregator of donations for pro-choice women candidates. Emily’s List was founded to give early money to campaigns, and the approximately $350,000 it poured into Esty’s primary race were likely crucial.
But Esty’s activist streak has also provided Roraback with an opportunity to attack. His campaign dug up a 10-year-old video of Esty, as a mother of three before she sat on Cheshire’s town council, speaking at a council meeting. In that video clip, Esty said people who objected to the town’s property taxes — which help pay for local schools — were “always welcome to move to a neighboring town.”
“She wants to send people she disagrees with out of town,” Roraback said. “With Esty, it’s my way or the highway.”
With a tinge of regret, Esty said she made the comments “as a mother and perhaps as a very passionate defender of public education.”
Labor unions in Connecticut and many liberal Democrats who had backed Donovan had some mistrust of Esty, whom they viewed as too moderate and perhaps too willing to compromise on issues they hold dear.
Labor has since endorsed Esty.
But she remains a committed moderate who says she hopes to help clean up the fiscal mess in Washington.
“There is accountability I bring from serving in local office,” Esty said. “You have to balance the budget. You have to have a sense of when government works and when it doesn’t.”
Birdwhistell said Esty’s support of the business community is sincere.
“She’s a progressive socially but understands that people can’t be healthy unless businesses are healthy,” Birdwhistell said.
Sandy Breslin, a lobbyist for Audubon Connecticut, said she appreciated Esty when she was a state lawmaker because “she’s a strong supporter of the environment and she’ll stand for what she believes in.”
“She’s a fighter, but in a good way,” Breslin said. “I don’t mean she’s combative, she’s courageous.”
Esty said she’s not fazed by the lack of clout she’s likely to have as a very junior member of the minority party if she wins November’s election.
“What I found out as a junior person in a law firm is you can get a lot done if you are concerned about getting things done,” she said.
The ambitious Esty has already decided she wants to sit on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“Energy and commerce … reflects a lot of the employment base and economic base of (the 5th) District,” she said.
But first she must win a seat the Rothenberg Political Report and other analysts consider a toss-up.