Elizabeth Esty graduated from Yale and Harvard, but her best political education came through serving in local government.

“One of the most important life experiences that I bring to the table is my time serving on the Cheshire Town Council, because it is where the rubber hits the road,” said the former state representative, who is now one of four candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in the Fifth Congressional District.

Esty, 51, said about seven years ago the Town Council approved no spending increase for education that “didn’t seem to be based on any particular logic.”

With three children in the public schools, she became “active” with a parents group and observed various factions “hurling accusations” at each other during the budget sessions.

Esty said senior citizens living on fixed incomes felt “very threatened” about higher property taxes.

She said the oldest of her three children, Sarah, then 15, told her, “‘You have to run for the Town Council or stop complaining. We’re old enough now that you could run. I’ll manage your campaign.’”

Esty said she and the other Democratic Town Council candidates ran on a platform in 2005 that increased the property tax credit for senior citizens so they could afford to live in town even when spending for education increased.

She said the Democrats captured control of the legislative body for only the second time in Cheshire’s history and after taking office approved the senior citizen tax credit.

Esty, who is an attorney, said she worked “virtually full-time” on municipal issues during her two terms on the Town Council. As a state representative for two years she was well-respected even though she never made it past her first term.

“When you make decisions, you hear about it because it might impact the person on the treadmill next to yours at the health club,” she said in an interview at a Cheshire restaurant. “The phone rings and people stop you in the grocery store.”

She won a Republican-leaning state House seat over Republican incumbent Al Adinofi in 2008 and lost a rematch by 140 votes in 2010.

Esty faces public relations executive Dan Roberti of Kent, Wesleyan professor Mike Williams of New Preston and state House Speaker Chris Donovan of Meriden in the race for the Democratic nomination to succeed U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, who’s running for the U.S. Senate, in the sprawling district that covers much of the northwestern Connecticut.

“Chris Donovan got a late start with his work on the state budget, but I think he’s the frontrunner, partly because he has experience and he knows a lot of people in the district,” said Robert Marconi of Brookfield, who was the Democratic nominee in 2004 before withdrawing from the race.

Since forming a campaign committee in March, Esty has raised about $423,000, including $251,000 during the quarter that ended in June.

In June Esty was one of seven Democratic women from around the country to receive the backing of EMILY’s List. The prestigious accomplishment gives her access to a national network of donors to help her raise money for what is shaping up to be a crowded race.

Roberti raised about $300,716 during the second quarter and reports about $400,000 on hand. Donovan, who didn’t enter the race until May, had totaled about $230,000 and Williams, who also joined the field about two months ago, reported raising about $100,000.

“I’ve never seen so much activity so early,” said Marconi, who has been following the races in the Fifth District for 20 years. It’s the first time since 1990 that the district has been an open seat.

Esty, the wife of state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel Esty, said that neither the Democratic or Republican nominee will be able to rely on their base, since 45 percent of the voters in the district are unaffiliated.

“That should be huge siren for both parties about failure,” she said. “Nearly half of the people in the district don’t want to take the step to register with a party and be able to vote in the primaries.”

Esty said that Democrats in the district have been energized in recent years, particularly at the height of the war in Iraq. However, she said “there also is a Tea Party movement that is strong in this part of the state.”

She said job creation will be the prominent issue, with unemployment at the highest levels since 1982, and that it can be partly addressed through a recommitment to manufacturing.

“It’s been a mistake in this country not to talk about making things,” Esty said. “China is the leader in solar and wind turbine production, and that should be of concern to us.”

“We need to create middle class jobs with good pay,” she said. “American workers have had flat wages for 10 years.”

As for the tenor of debate in Washington D.C. “The debt ceiling arguments are what’s wrong with American politics right now,” Esty said.  “People are saying that I can’t win unless you lose.”