Back in April when Connecticut’s 5th-district congressional race was just coming into its own, I wrote that it was going to be one of the hottest contests in the country. But this crazy race has far exceeded my expectations. And best of all, with the primaries looming just ahead on Tuesday, it’s far from over.
It’s been awhile since a competitive Connecticut congressional seat has opened up with nary an incumbent running. When 17-year congresswoman Barbara B. Kennelly made her ill-fated run for governor in 1998, her seat was up for grabs. But the 1st district, which includes the Capital City and the organized labor stronghold of East Hartford, typically elects any liberal with a pulse. So Democratic nominee and former state Senate President Pro Tem John Larson was a shoo-in.
Yes, the campaign in the 5th this year is unlike anything we’ve seen in quite some time. It’s a swing district to begin with, but the absence of a clear front-runner in either party makes it a race for the ages.
Complicating matters are the legal and ethical problems plaguing two prominent candidates: Democrat and incumbent speaker of the state House of Representatives Chris Donovan and businesswoman Lisa Wilson-Foley. I’d be willing to bet that never before in U.S. history has there been a congressional race that has featured a candidate from each party whose campaign is the target of separate grand jury investigations.
But perhaps the most intriguing story in the CT05 free-for-all has been late to emerge. Barely 30 years old, Democrat Dan Roberti seemed like a longshot when he announced his candidacy. After all, while Roberti now lives in Kent, he has no work history in the state, has never held elected office and has no record of public service. He claims to have run a homeless shelter in Spokane, Washington for a year, but it appears he’s spent the bulk of his time recently as a PR consultant.
Now comes the shocker, reported on these pages this week by Christine Stuart, that the presumed underdog now leads the race for the Democratic nomination, according to internal polls conducted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
How could that be, you ask? No one knows for sure, but Roberti’s position has clearly rankled the feathers of Elizabeth Esty, his only rival for the stop-Donovan vote. In a debate last Saturday in Litchfield, Esty turned a mortgage crisis question from the moderator into an attack on Roberti, the son of former state legislator and prominent Washington lobbyist Vin Roberti, for being a co-owner of his father’s firm — until recently, that is, when the younger Roberti said he sold his shares. She also complained about a recently launched Super PAC “dedicated to buying him a seat in Congress.” See the video below and fast forward to 3:30.
The mysterious rise of the younger Roberti has also caught attention of the Torrington Register Citizen, which has endorsed Esty. In a scathing editorial earlier this week, the paper branded Roberti “The Manchurian Candidate.”
I don’t know whether, as Esty has suggested, the elder Roberti is trying to elect a personal congressman in the 5th district in order to further his lobbying agenda. But I think it’s safe to say that the Roberti candidacy simply does not pass the smell test.
Roberti has received more than $1 million in out-of-state campaign contributions. He says he was raised by a single mother who worked as a teacher. And according to Roberti’s 2011 financial disclosure form, he still owes money on his college loans. But he somehow found the wherewithal to lend his own campaign $835,000 over the last month.
One reason there are so many unanswered questions is that this year Roberti asked for and received an extension on filing the financial disclosure forms required of all congressional candidates. Can you guess when it’s due? 11:59 p.m., Aug. 13 —only a few hours before polls open for the primary the next day. For both journalists and Democratic primary voters, that will be the news dump from hell.
Fueling further suspicion is that the Super PAC supporting Roberti, New Directions For America, is taking full advantage of an FEC reporting loophole. Consequently, a list of New Directions’ donors won’t be released until Aug. 20, almost a week after the primary. This is the same group that has funded $413,000 in attack ads against Esty and Donovan. Is it asking too much for primary voters to know who’s funding those hit pieces in advance of the primary?
So where did Roberti get his money? According to the Register Citizen, even the candidate himself seems confused. In a recent interview with the paper, he changed his story about who bought his shares in his father’s lobbying business.
Perhaps calling Roberti the Manchurian Candidate is a bit over-the-top. Yes, his father is a high-powered lobbyist from Bridgeport and a man of questionable repute, having been acquitted more than 20 years ago of arson in a West Hartford insurance fraud scheme. And in 1978, before young Dan was born, the elder Roberti was named one of the state’s 10 worst legislators by Connecticut Magazine, which depicted him in a profile as an ill-tempered publicity monger.
But that doesn’t mean the sins of the father should be visited upon the son. Still, if the DCCC polls hold up, Democrats should pray that the apple falls far from the tree — very far.
Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com, is the editor of ctessentialpolitics.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company.