The Democratic candidates for the race to succeed Chris Murphy as fifth-district congressman disagreed little on the issues at a debate Saturday at Cornwall Consolidated School. So, as is often the case, the chatter focused on personalities, personal stories and who would work hardest to battle the Republican majority in the House of Representatives in Washington.

The wide-open race, which has attracted national attention, features three able candidates and one, Randy Yale, who conceded right from the outset of the event that he had not yet raised a dime for his campaign, leading me to wonder what exactly he was doing on the stage.

Now we know. The former insurance underwriter was there to provide comic relief. Asked what his position was on the war on drugs, Yale eventually replied that when he was a high school student in North Carolina, many of his friends would smoke pot around him on the weekends, though he himself did not partake:

“I never smoked pot, but I’m worried about the long-term effects. Because when I go back and talk to them — there’s seven or eight of them that were part of that group — every single one of them’s a Republican and three of them belong to the Tea Party.”

Laughter and applause engulfed the middle school gym for at least a minute. And so it went. It was a tough act to follow. None of the other candidates exhibited much of a sense of humor. But all had strengths and weaknesses on display.

They took similar positions when prompted by moderator Norman Dorsen. The NYU law professor and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union did a splendid job, asking incisive questions and prompting the candidates about time limits but staying out of the way and allowing them to display their mastery of the issues — or lack thereof.

The audience of 200 or so (150, not counting campaign staffers) didn’t seem to mind that there were few policy differences among the candidates: Yale; former state representative Elizabeth Esty of Cheshire; House Speaker Chris Donovan of Meriden; and Dan Roberti, a Kent resident and former political operative who once worked for Democratic strategist James Carville.

In addition to the one about drugs, they fielded questions about energy, Pentagon spending cuts, the housing foreclosure crisis, immigration reform, the turmoil in the Middle East and nuclear proliferation. The responses were largely consistent with positions taken previously by the Democratic establishment in Washington.

Still, there were some subtle jabs. Roberti tried to pick up the mantle of Murphy, who is now running for the Senate seat of the retiring U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman. Roberti noted that the fifth district is the most GOP-leaning in the state and that Murphy defeated Republican Nancy Johnson in 2006 by appealing to the moderates and independents who can swing elections.

“I will continue the work of Chris Murphy,” said Roberti. The remark could be seen as a swipe at Donovan, a former community organizer and union representative who appeals to Democrats, but who is viewed by many as extremely tight with public-sector organized labor.

For his part, Donovan did a competent job of delivering his message and hewing to his talking points about “liberty and justice for all” and “sticking up for people.” When asked by Dorsen if it was fair for voters to assume he might favor unions over other interest groups, Donovan delivered a rambling answer:

“I’ve supported other people as well. Healthcare, children, raising the minimum wage. People in unions already have that . . . People need to be treated with dignity and respect . . . People who work for Wal-Mart work 30 hours a week and get no healthcare.” In other words, Donovan thinks Wal-Mart’s workers need to organize, which sort of proves Dorsen’s point.

In a Democratic debate in February, Donovan asked the other candidates to agree to a non-aggression pact against negative campaign ads, which Esty commendably dismissed as a publicity stunt.

This time, Donovan’s antics included seizing the microphone from the debate table and striding down off the stage to deliver his opening and closing remarks. I’m not sure whether it was an attempt to connect with his audience or a display of showmanship to suggest a take-charge image. Either way, it seemed to fall flat with the audience.

Agree or disagree with Esty’s politics — and I did take issue with her insistence that Republicans are waging a war on women — but she is articulate, has a clear command of the issues, plenty of gravitas, and is fully aware that she has to attract the votes of independents to win. Witness her response to Dorsen’s question on immigration:

“We have to secure our borders. But we have to deal with reality,” Esty said. “We have millions of workers living among us. They need a path to citizenship.”

She also exhibited the graciousness to acknowledge “Speaker Donovan’s work” in enacting a Connecticut version of the DREAM Act, which on the federal level would provide illegal immigrants with access to higher education and a path to citizenship.

And you have to admire Esty on another level. She lost re-election after one term as a state rep largely because of her opposition to the death penalty. Esty represented residents on the very same street where the family of Dr. William Petit was murdered in a ghastly 2007 home invasion that attracted national attention. Imagine that in this day and age: a politician sticking to principle even if it means she’s going to get thrown out of a job.

The upshot of this event was clear to me. Donovan is too closely tied to the unions and too far to the left to win a swing district. Roberti is a very capable and knowledgeable young man, but at 29 he might be jumping the gun. Esty, the self-described “candidate in a skirt,” has the wherewithal to attract the independents who might otherwise gravitate to Andrew Roraback, the popular state senator and likely Republican nominee.

After reaching this conclusion, I emerged from Spin City and wandered over to the reception thrown by the Democratic Coalition of Northwest Connecticut. And I listened to Randy Yale tell some more jokes.

Terry Cowgill blogs at, is the editor of and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, is a Substack columnist and is the retired managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him here.

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