Washington — When Rep.-elect Elizabeth Esty, one of dozens of newly elected members of Congress attending a Harvard policy seminar, was pulled out of class by news of the Newtown shootings, her days as an ordinary House freshman were over.
Unlike the rest of the 67-member House freshman class, Esty, a 53-year-old Democrat, won’t be able to take time learning the ropes during the first weeks she’s in office. Instead, from the moment she’s sworn in on Wednesday, Esty will be thrust into the middle of a national debate on gun control — led by President Obama — because she will represent Newtown in Congress.
“You don’t always choose the issues, the issues choose you,” Esty said.
Esty said she packed her bags and drove from Cambridge to Newtown as soon as she determined the shooting occurred in her district, even though she was not officially its representative yet.
That duty belongs to Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th, until the current Congress ends Tuesday. Murphy has been elected to the Senate.
An irony of the situation is that the Republican Esty defeated for the 5th District seat, former state Sen. Andrew Roraback, shared her advocacy of gun control — something that helped win him the backing of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
As a Republican, Roraback would have played a special role in the looming congressional fight over gun control.
But no matter, it’s Esty’s job now.
“This is an issue that requires the representative of Newtown to play a significant role,” Esty said. “That obviously changes priorities.”
University of Connecticut political science professor Ron Schurin said, “I would suspect she would not want to be thrust into the spotlight by something like this.
“But she has.”
Of course, the whole delegation — and many senior Democrats from throughout the country — will be involved in the fight.
But the tragedy is already shaping how Esty approaches her new job. She said the shootings forced her to postpone hiring staff. Now she’s looking for candidates with special backgrounds and skills that will help her in efforts to tighten the nation’s gun laws and with other problems the tragedy has spawned.
Gary Rose, head of the political science department at Sacred Heart University, said Esty’s plunge into such a high-profile, national issue will teach her quickly about the ways of Washington and the power of special interests like the gun lobby.
“I think she’s going to have a rude awakening,” Rose said.
But in many ways, Esty is a still a typical freshman.
She drew a high number — 53 — in the lottery for Capitol Hill offices. That means most of her colleagues picked through empty offices before her. She ended up with a workspace on the top floor of the Cannon House Office Building, an undesirable piece of real estate known as “the freshman attic.”
Although new to Capitol Hill, Esty is not a stranger to politics, having served in a top Washington law firm and as a town council member and one-term state representative. Her husband, Dan Esty, heads the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Elizabeth Esty has won a spot on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, a position she hopes will help her steer road money to the 5th District.
She’s still waiting to know if she will land a slot on another panel she’s interested in, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee — a job she hopes would allow her help the new biomedical Jackson Laboratory under construction in Farmington.
“I think I have a decent chance at getting it,” Esty said.
Another thing that makes Esty a lot like other freshmen: She can’t wait to be sworn into the 113th Congress.
“I’m looking forward to getting things done,” she said.