5th District challengers

Washington – Rep. Elizabeth Esty wakes up at 5 a.m. every Thursday to attend a spin class and practice yoga with House Speaker Paul Ryan and several other lawmakers.

“Part of the reason I’m doing this is that to get things done, you have to know Paul Ryan,” said Esty, a Democrat.

She may be trying to win Republican friends in Washington, but she’s attracted three Republican rivals back home.

Esty won the 5th Congressional District seat four years ago with the help of a bit of luck. Staff members of the front-running Democrat in the race, Chris Donovan, were engulfed in a “pay-to-play” scandal. She was also fortunate that President Obama was running for re-election that year, boosting Democratic turnout.

But that first race against Republican Andrew Roraback was tough, as was her bid for re-election two years ago against wealthy developer Mark Greenberg.

Esty’s latest challengers may not have Roraback’s name recognition or Greenberg’s wealth, which allowed him to self-finance his campaign, but they are all determined to win the right to represent the 5th District in Congress and change the composition of  Connecticut’s all-Democratic congressional delegation.

They are Matt Maxwell of Sandy Hook, Clay Cope of Sherman and John Pistone of Brookfield.

The three Republicans will compete for their party’s nomination at a convention on May 9.

A fourth Republican, Joseph Stango, considered entering the race, but decided against it and has thrown his support to Cope. Maxwell said he will also support Cope if he doesn’t win the nomination.

Maxwell: ‘A citizen background’

Matt Maxwell of Sandy Hook.
Matt Maxwell of Sandy Hook. Maxwell campaign web site

Maxwell, 34, said he has the advantage of “coming from a different background than professional politicians.”

He was home-schooled and never went to college, but is now a successful real estate investor and home rehabilitator.

“I come from a citizen background,” Maxwell said.

He says Esty and her party support too much regulation of business.

“If we get out of the way, capitalism works,” Maxwell said.

Maxwell also differs with Esty on the Iran nuclear pact, which the congresswoman supported.

He opposes abortion and, like most other Republicans, wants to cut taxes and repeal the Affordable Care Act. He has produced several videos explaining his views, and refers to the “corruption of big government and big business,” saying: “It’s time we put an end to generational theft.”

Maxwell is married and has two children, one a foster child he and his wife are in the process of adopting.

He has never run for political office and acknowledges he’s an underdog in the race. He said he’s surprised by the amount of time and effort fundraising for a campaign for Congress requires.

According to the latest reports from the Federal Elections Commission, Esty has raised more than $900,000 in this campaign cycle and had more than $660,000 in cash-on-hand on Dec. 31. Her challengers aren’t required to file campaign finance documents until the end of this quarter.

To Maxwell it’s a David versus Goliath contest.

“But remember, David won,” he said.

If he doesn’t win the race, he’s philosophical. “I’m young; I’ve got another 30 years to be successful in Connecticut politics,” he said.

Cope attracts key supporters

Cope, 52, is Sherman’s first selectman. He said he was urged to run against Esty last summer, but decided to run for re-election for a third term as his town’s top elected official.

Sherman First Selectman Clay Cope
Sherman First Selectman Clay Cope

But then he “began to mull the possibility over” and studied Esty’s voting record, he said.

“And when I looked more closely at her voting record, which was far too liberal and partisan for the middle-of-the-road 5th District, I was appalled,” Cope said.

So he committed to running.

A native Texan, Cope studied fashion design at Texas Tech University.

He and his former partner, fashion designer Victor Costa, purchased a weekend home in Sherman in 1995.

“I felt a warm welcome there,” Cope said.

Eventually he moved permanently to Sherman, becoming involved in the community and serving on the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission.

He says he’s a fiscal conservative, and his campaign platform will include tax reform and lower taxes and less federal spending and regulations.

“As first selectman, I assemble and manage a budget each year to benefit the residents of my town. I must live within that budget, and if I don’t, I am accountable to voters,” he said. “Voters want a balanced federal budget, and I will work to achieve it.”

As far as fundraising, Cope acknowledges that incumbents have a great advantage over challengers.

But he said he’s confident he’ll raise enough money “from individuals who believe in me and my plans and goals for the 5th District, to wage a successful campaign and win this election.”

Cope is also not worried about having little name recognition outside of Sherman, a town of a little more than 3,500 people.

“Name recognition is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways,” Cope said. “Governor [Dannel P.] Malloy enjoys broad name recognition in Connecticut. But his name is attached to escalating taxes, unrestrained spending and the malaise of a permanent fiscal crisis.”

Cope is supported by local GOP officials. Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton hosted his campaign launch, which was attended by Fairfield First Selectman Susan Chapman, Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra, Darien First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, State Rep. Arthur O’Neill, former 5th District candidate Greenberg, Trumbull Mayor Tim Herbst and former State Sen. John McKinney.

Cope lives with his partner, Andres Sanchez, a native of Peru.

There are no openly gay Republicans in Congress although a few have run for office. In 2014, Richard Tisei of Massachusetts and Carl DeMaio of California both lost to their Democratic opponents.

Pistone’s third shot

Pistone, 54, is the third Republican running to unseat Esty and the first to declare his candidacy.

John Pistone
John Pistone Pistone campaign web site

He did not respond to requests for an interview, but his campaign web site says he wants Congress to pass “common-sense legislation, not business as usual politics.”

Pistone’s web site lists his positions on a number of issues. Among them, he supports term limits,  traditional marriage and Second Amendment rights and opposes the Iran nuclear and President Obama’s use of executive orders.

This is the third time Pistone is running for the 5th District seat. Two years ago he collected the signatures of 2,848 registered voters to qualify for a place on the ballot with Esty and Greenberg. He ran as an “unaffiliated conservative.”

University of Connecticut political science professor Ron Schurin said Esty is “developing a safe seat,” the result of good constituent services and efforts at bipartisanship – and the benefits of incumbency. She belongs to the centrist “New Democrat Coalition” that is co-chaired by Rep. Jim Himes, D-5th District.

“She’s constructive, progressive, but not doctrinaire,” Schurin said.

The 5th District is home to many independent voters and perhaps more Republican voters than any other in the state. The Cook Political Report has rated the district “Likely Democratic.”

But J.R. Romano, the chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, says the GOP has a chance of taking back a district that has historically tacked back and forth between parties.

He said Esty won her first election in 2012 because her opponent “ran into the Obama machine.”

“This is not going to be a walkaway for Elizabeth Esty,” Romano said. “There will be people in that district who will say ‘Anybody but Esty.’”

The National Republican Congressional Committee has already put Esty on its hit list, bashing the congresswoman for supporting the Iran nuclear deal and voting against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and a defense bill Obama vetoed because it put too much money off budget

Schurin, however, says it would take an extraordinary situation for Esty to lose.

“Esty was re-elected in a very tough year for Democrats against a well-funded, although somewhat extreme, opponent,” Schurin said.

Democrats lost 13 House seats in the 2014 midterm elections.

Schurin said the only political scenarios that could threaten Esty’s re-election are that “it becomes a Republican year,” or her race becomes a referendum on Gov. Malloy, a Democrat whose approval ratings have plummeted.

Esty will run on her record and what she can do for her constituents. “Constituent service is worth its weight in gold,” she said.

She is proud that she’s had three bills signed into law recently.

One establishes certain requirement on the packaging and devices of liquid nicotine used by e-cigarettes to protect children from poisoning.

She has also had wins with the “Gold Star Fathers Act,” which allows fathers who have lost children killed in action to be eligible for the veteran’s preference when applying to work for the federal government and a bill that expanded the definition of STEM in federal programs to include computer science. STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“That’s a better record than some of the Republican (senators) who are running for the White House,” Esty said.

She “does not accept the excuse that it’s hard to get things done if you are in the minority,” she said.

“The best way to get re-elected is to do your job well,” Esty said. “The district I represent is almost like Missouri,” called the “Show Me” state for the non-credulous character of its residents.

For now, Esty does not have the help of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which helped her in her two previous runs for office by running attack ads against her opponents.

In fact, this year Esty is helping the DCCC by recruiting Democratic candidates to run in House races.

She said the impact of the presidential race on her chances for re-election “remains to be seen.”

“It depends on who is running on the other side,” she said.

She’s fully aware of the 5th District’s history.

“No Democrat has held this office for more than three terms,” she said.


Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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