On a recent day on the campaign trail, 5th District Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty sat down with the board of the Waterbury Chamber of Commerce. She talked about helping businesspeople work through some federal regulations that could be eased for them.
Twenty minutes later, she took the podium at the Connecticut Service Employees Union International convention at the Aqua Turf Club in Plantsville, where she railed against wealthy business owners who put profit above workers and how the government must do more to regulate them.
Esty, in a battle with Litchfield real estate developer Mark Greenberg as she seeks re-election to a second term Nov. 4, is viewed by the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party in Connecticut as a moderate-to-conservative Democrat who has veered to the left on some issues in order to solidify the base.
She’s viewed by conservative Republicans as a far-left liberal who has shrewdly cast some votes against her party in order to win re-election in Connecticut’s most conservative congressional district.
The progressive blog My Left Nutmeg still refers to Esty as a “DINO” — Democrat in Name Only” — and frequently mentions her in connection to former Sen. Joe Lieberman, who was eventually reviled by Democrats for his conservative votes and associations with Republicans. The conservative Republican-American newspaper in Waterbury, in endorsing Greenberg, said Esty’s campaign is full of “far-left boilerplate” that is “out of step with her moderate district.”
In speaking to business groups, Esty touts her involvement in “No Labels,” a bipartisan organization of moderate Democratic and Republican lawmakers. She voted with Republicans to weaken the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. And she also split from the rest of her party in backing an investigation of the IRS’s treatment of conservative nonprofit organizations.
But on key issues important to labor — paid sick leave, for example — she has moved to the left.
Esty won a bitter Democratic primary two years ago against former House Speaker Chris Donovan, a hero of Connecticut’s labor unions and most liberal Democrats.
And although she won its nominal endorsement for a general election in which she barely squeaked by former state Sen. Andrew Roraback, labor’s formidable corps of get-out-the-vote volunteers did not put in the work they traditionally have for other Democratic candidates.
It’s different this time, and Lindsay Farrell, director of the Connecticut Working Families Party, says it’s because Esty has put actions behind assurances she gave labor leaders following the 2012 primary.
“Now we have a record of her in Congress being strong on many of (our) issues . . . It’s actually pretty great,” Farrell said. “We’ve been out knocking on doors for her.”
Farrell’s organization had to overcome significant opposition from members in endorsing Esty two years ago. This year, there was little debate. And the Working Families Party went so far last week as to file a Federal Elections Commission complaint against Esty’s opponent.
Farrell said it wasn’t just labor’s love for Donovan that made support for Esty difficult in 2012. Progressives were angry that as a state representative from Cheshire, she voted against a bill that would have required Connecticut companies to offer paid sick leave to employees. A version of the bill eventually became state law.
Esty had changed her position on paid sick leave before the 2012 primary, but the vote and comments Esty frequently made as a state legislator about protecting business owners gave the unions pause.
“Votes like that and other votes made us wary of her as a candidate,” Farrell said. After the primary, she said labor leaders had some tough questions for Esty: “This is the record you have and we don’t like it. Is this going to be how you are in Congress?”
Since being elected to Congress, Esty has signed on as cosponsor of a bill authored by 3rd District Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro that would implement a version of Connecticut’s paid sick leave law at the federal level.
Esty said that one of the reasons she voted against the Connecticut bill is that it would have been used as one more reason for some employers to move out of state so they could abide by more lax and less expensive rules. That is off the table, she said, if it’s applied in all 50 states.
“It really isn’t a change of heart because I firmly believed then and I’ve told people that I think it ought to be a federal policy,” Esty said last week. “It makes sense economically and morally, and from a health policy. Just look what is in the news today.”
Her opponent disagrees.
“I do not believe that we should have paid sick leave legislated at the federal level,” Greenberg said in an email last week. “My belief is that most companies that can afford it voluntarily offer paid sick leave as company policy. For instance, at MGRE Co. LLC, a real estate management company that I founded years ago, our policy was a combination of five days paid sick leave or personal days. In the event that an employee did not use some or all of those days during the year, MGRE would give a bonus to the employee for any unused days. Also, I believe that most companies are still reeling from the effects of the Obamacare mandates, and the effect of legislated sick leave would only retard the company’s return to financial health from these difficult economic times.”
There are sharp contrasts like that between Esty and Greenberg on many issues, and she has been aided in rallying the base this time by a far more conservative opponent. Roraback, a longtime state legislator who worked hard on local issues, was well-liked in Northwest Connecticut even by liberal Democrats. He supported gay marriage and abortion rights, was open to gun control reforms, had a strong record on environmental issues and was an opponent of the death penalty. Greenberg opposes gay marriage and abortion, until recently had a strong rating from the National Rifle Association, and supports the Keystone XL pipeline, offshore drilling, and “clean coal.”
Greenberg’s supporters, dating back to his unsuccessful Republican primary campaigns for the 5th District in 2010 and 2012, say that unlike Esty, he is consistent in his positions and ideology.
“Politicians talking out of both sides of their mouths is usually a cliche, but for Elizabeth Esty it is a trademark,” said Bill Evans, Greenberg’s campaign manager. “She runs ads showing support for veterans, but votes against a bill that would cut waiting lines at VA hospitals. She tells the corporations what they want to hear and 10 minutes later, she vilifies them in order to pander to the unions.”
But in a district that has far more independent voters than Republicans or Democrats, even Greenberg has worked during this campaign to show he can see both sides of an issue. The NRA dropped its rating of his candidacy from “A” to “F” after he made a surprise announcement in support of universal background checks. And last week, after initially criticizing Esty for the same position, Greenberg said he was open to raising the limit on income subject to Social Security taxes.
Matt DeRienzo is the former editor of the New Haven Register, Register Citizen, Middletown Press, Connecticut Magazine and other Digital First Media publications in Connecticut and former publisher of The Register Citizen in Torrington. Email him . Follow him on Twitter at @mattderienzo.
DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.