Washington – Like all new federal lawmakers, Rep. Elizabeth Esty is learning each day how to function in Congress. But unlike most, hers is a trial by fire.
Esty, D-5th District, represents Newtown. That has thrust her into the limelight in a way that has helped raise her profile, but also radically changed her duties at a time when most House freshmen were still interviewing potential staffers and decorating their new offices.
Esty has been thrust in the middle of the raging national debate over gun control and says placing limits on the most dangerous guns is her “mission.”
“She was a freshman for about a nanosecond,” said Rep. John Larson, D-1st District.
Esty, 53, was sworn into office in January, having won the seat held by fellow Democrat Chris Murphy, who successfully ran for Senate.
She is not by any means a complete novice to Washington, having worked for mega international law firm Sidley Austin’s office in the city in the 1980s, where her duties included drafting Supreme Court briefs.
She’s also married to Dan Esty, the Connecticut Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Politics is spoken at home.
Elizabeth Esty also served a term in the Connecticut statehouse, representing her hometown of Cheshire, where she still lives, commuting from a rented apartment on Capitol Hill.
She shrugs off the fact Congress’ approval ratings are at an all-time low and partisan gridlock has diminished any chance a freshman lawmaker can get much done.
“I passionately believe we can and must do better to solve problems,” she said. But even an overachiever like Elizabeth Esty, a graduate of both Harvard and Yale, was not prepared for the often punishing pace of Capitol Hill, even in a Congress that’s been widely criticized for accomplishing little.
“The biggest surprise is how little control you have over your schedule,” she said. “I was prepared for it to be busy, but I wasn’t prepared for how busy.”
A lawmaker’s day is typically divided into 15-minute segments, with time out for votes, committee hearings, press conferences, fundraisers and other events. Constituents, lobbyists and others are penciled into a lawmaker’s schedule for visits that usually last a quarter of an hour and are often canceled at the last minute because of votes or other unscheduled events.
Esty says her day starts before 8 a.m. and can go until midnight when Congress is in session. For the House of Representatives, that’s usually from Monday evening until Thursday afternoon, with one week out of the month free and other breaks for holidays and summer.
Esty often checks a folder holding lists of the day’s appointments to figure out what she’s supposed to do.
But often the schedule changes — frequently at the last minute.
A normal day for Esty starts with breakfast meetings. On this day, March 13, she attended two congressional breakfasts, one hosted by TechAmerica, a trade organization for technology firms.
Esty says she never gets to eat at events.
“I have to meet too many people, she said.
So Esty brought a cup of yogurt and granola to a 10 a.m. hearing of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, one of the House panels she serves on. The other is the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
“That’s my breakfast,” she said, waving her cup.
100 miles a minute
The subject of the hearing was the state of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) instruction in the United States. Witnesses were from Intel and Honeywell and the educational nonprofit world.
Esty listened intently and took notes. She waited patiently for her turn. As the most junior Democrat on the subcommittee holding the hearing, she was last.
That symbolizes where Esty is in Congress’ pecking order. She’s a junior Democrat in a House ruled by Republicans.
Esty said she read the written testimony of the witnesses the night before, dozens of pages, to prepare for the hearing. She criticized a Republican member of the panel who suggested the billions of dollars the federal government spends to support STEM education could be better used as college scholarships to those who want to study those disciplines.
“It’s too late by then,” Esty said. “A study shows that as early as the second or third grade, children have selected what they want to study.”
Esty may be learning the ways of Capitol Hill, but she hasn’t mastered the art of the sound bite.
She answers questions in sometimes excruciating detail, always in command of a volume of facts to back up her position on issues.
“She has a broad reach on issues, a huge learning capacity,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro,D-3rd District, said Esty also has a much less serious side that not always on display, except if you catch her chatting and joking with Democrats on their side of the House floor, where she’s easily identified by her red curls.
“She doesn’t take herself seriously. She has a great sense of humor,” DeLauro said.
If she’s sometimes confused by the “100 miles a minute” pace of her job, DeLauro said Esty just shrugs it off and says, “‘OK, where am I going? What am I supposed to be doing?’ ”
Hearing over, Esty attended a closed door meeting of House Democrats to strategize about the budget and other issues.
That done, she heads to a lunch for New Democrats, a centrist faction of her party, in the Capitol.
Esty said she’s closest to other members of Connecticut’s all-Democratic congressional delegation.
They loaned her staff and advised her of things large and small, including the best cafeteria or the best way to manage office emails, she said.
Newtown helped cement the delegation’s cohesiveness, she said. “We all got thrown into the deep end of the pool together.”
Republican friends? No, not yet. But she said she’s meeting and getting to know members of the opposing party.
An office in the attic
Nearly every day Congress is in session there are hearings of a new Democratic gun control caucus Esty belongs to or press conferences by gun-control groups.
This day, Esty and DeLauro attended a 2 p.m. press conference organized by Moms Demand Action! in the Capitol.
“It’s a bittersweet honor to represent my district and Newtown,” she said.
She hurried from that event to a 2:55 p.m. procedural vote on the House floor on a GOP favorite, legislation that would restrict state flexibility on work requirements for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a program once known as welfare.
She votes with all other Democrats against the motion.
Between votes and appointments, Esty met with constituents at her office on the fifth floor of the Cannon House Office Building, an undesirable location that can be reached only by a few elevators, is populated mostly by freshman and known as the “Cannon attic.”
But her office is sunny and bright, even if it is a little small, and out the window you can see the dome of the Capitol if you crane your neck a bit.
Once again, Newtown colors Esty’s workspace. A painting on wood of Sandy Hook Elementary School hangs in her personal office, whose walls otherwise are still largely bare.
In the reception area, a hand-made valentine from a Sandy Hook student is prominently displayed. Esty also plans to hang a green and white jersey from Team 26, a group that bicycled from Newtown to Washington to try to persuade lawmakers to support gun control.
She’s hired 10 staffers, fewer than most congressional offices, and only has one full-time district office, in New Britain, and another office staffed part-time in a senior center in Meriden.
Esty said given federal budget cuts it didn’t make sense “to have a bunch of fancy offices” and would rather spend her resources to serve constituents.
Despite its modest size, Esty’s operation is productive.
A recent University of Minnesota study put Esty — and Larson– in the top 10 as far as lawmakers who’ve sent out the most press releases. The study said it could be because Connecticut has the focus of attention because of superstorm Sandy and the gun violence in Newtown, and many of their press releases reflect that.
Holes in the heart
Constituents and lobbyists usually visit a lawmaker to ask favors.
A group from Avon representing the Small Business Investment Alliance has already visited. Now members of the Connecticut Farmland Trust want to speak to her about funding for “open space” grants and tax incentives for donating land for conservation easements. Both programs are threatened by federal budget cuts.
“She was very gracious,” Farmland Trust Executive Director Jim Gooch said of the meeting.
Another group arrrived, this time members of Moms Demand Action! from Connecticut. But they’re not here for favors. They’re here to say thanks. Brenda King of Guilford also wanted to deliver Esty a letter from her Republican mother-in-law in support of the lawmakers’ gun-control efforts.
But another vote was called, and Esty had to make a 10-minute dash to the House floor to vote against the final TANF bill.
The group of gun-control activists left, because they were too tired to await Esty’s return.
Most lawmakers — and Esty is no exception — spend a good part of the day phoning potential donors and attending fundraisers.
Esty did not have time to do either on this day. But it’s likely she’ll ramp up those activities soon, even though she was just sworn into office and her re-election is almost two years off.
Esty has already been identified by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as one of 26 vulnerable incumbents in the next general elections, scheduled for November 2014.
As a member of the DCCC’s “Frontline” group, Esty will be eligible for fundraising help from the party.
She wasn’t always the party favorite. She became the Democratic candidate for the 5th District seat after the Democratic front-runner, Chris Donovan, was sunk by a bribery scandal in his campaign. A front page of the Hartford Courant proclaiming her primary victory with a huge headline that says “August Surprise” hangs prominently in the reception room of her office.
Esty went on to defeat former state Sen. Andrew Roraback in November’s general election. But representation of the 5th District has swung back and forth between Republicans and Democrats for generations. That, coupled with the fact that a lawmaker’s first re-election is usually the toughest, has put her on the DCCC’s Frontline list.
The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School occurred just three weeks before Esty was sworn into Congress.
When she heard of the shooting, she rushed to Newtown from a seminar she was attending at Harvard.
Unlike Connecticut’s other lawmakers, Esty was not able to attend any of the events in Newtown in the days after the shootings in an official capacity, even though she was compelled to be there.
“She handled those few weeks before her swearing in with remarkable sensitivity and empathy,” Blumenthal said. “I saw her often in Newtown but never presuming to insert herself in formal situations when it wasn’t appropriate.”
At 7 p.m., Esty rushed back again to the House floor, this time to give a short speech called a “one minute.”
These speeches, usually to a nearly empty House chamber and gallery, are often devoted to a pet project or to tout local businesses.
Esty spoke of the need for gun control, using a blown up photo of a bullet-riddled fire truck. It was driven by firefighters in upstate New York who were gunned down by the owner of the home in flames.
“The holes in the law are causing holes in the heart of America,” Esty said.
Speech over, the day is not.
Still on the schedule is a belated birthday party for DeLauro, who was born on March 2; then a gathering with other members of the freshman class.