Matt DeRienzo photo

Mark Greenberg, a conservative real estate developer from Litchfield, is challenging the re-election bid of Elizabeth Esty, a first-term congresswoman from Cheshire, on Tuesday for the chance to represent Connecticut’s 5th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

For the second election in a row, it has proven to be the state’s most competitive and expensive congressional race. But unlike 2012, when Esty, seen as a moderate Democrat, squeaked past a moderate Republican, former state Sen. Andrew Roraback, this year’s race features sharp ideological and stylistic differences between the candidates.

Greenberg is pro-life, supported the Supreme Court’s “Hobby Lobby” decision allowing employers to refuse to cover contraceptive coverage, and wants to require that women look at a sonogram of their unborn child before getting an abortion. He supports the death penalty and has been an opponent of gun control. He doesn’t believe that climate change is being caused by human activity, and he supports the Keystone XL pipeline, offshore drilling, and investment in “clean coal.”

Esty is a longtime advocate for reproductive and abortion rights and as an underdog swept through an extremely competitive Democratic primary two years ago with strong support from Emily’s List, a national fundraising and political action group that backs pro-choice female candidates. She lost her seat in the state legislature in 2010 after voting to repeal the state’s death penalty despite intense pressure in her hometown of Cheshire, where the triple murder of members of the Petit family had occurred a few years before. She was a strong advocate in Congress for stricter gun laws after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened, in her district, a month after she was elected. And she opposes the Keystone XL pipeline, offshore drilling and support for coal, blasting Greenberg for energy policies she believes would harm the environment.

Matt DeRienzo photo

Greenberg would repeal the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, and “replace” it with more modest reforms based more on a free enterprise approach to health care, including allowing certain insurance policies to be sold across state lines and limiting lawsuits against doctors.

Esty would preserve the law but continue to “make it better.” Her first term included a controversial vote in which she sided with Republicans on a proposal to weaken certain parts of Obamacare.

Greenberg takes a hard line on immigration and foreign policy and speaks frequently about the need to “secure the borders.” He also takes a hard line on support for Israel and fighting terrorists at home and abroad. Esty talks about a “path to citizenship” for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country and has been more cautious about committing military resources overseas.

Greenberg takes a traditional conservative Republican approach to government spending and taxes, wanting a downsized bureaucracy in Washington and a reduction in the corporate tax rate, capital gains taxes, and marginal rates for personal income taxes. He believes lower taxes will spur investment in the economy and lead to greater overall tax revenue.

Esty, instead, follows a traditional Democratic playbook, stressing the need to “invest” in transportation infrastructure and education to put manufacturers and other businesses in a better position to create jobs.

Differing Visions for Social Security

But it’s Social Security that has dominated this year’s campaign.

Recognizing that 130,000 people in the 5th District receive Social Security benefits, more than half the total number of people who cast ballots in the last mid-term election for her seat, Esty went on TV early in the campaign to attack Greenberg on the issue.

Those attacks, suggesting Greenberg wants to “privatize” Social Security and “take benefits away from seniors,” have been labeled “false” by the Hartford Courant and angrily denounced by the Greenberg campaign.

But they were repeated constantly on TV, with the help of hundreds of thousands of dollars of “outside” spending on Esty’s behalf by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Majority PAC.

The key difference between the two candidates’ positions on Social Security is that Greenberg wants to gradually raise the retirement age from 67 to 70, affecting people who are currently 52 and under. He says this is necessary to prevent the program from becoming “insolvent” as soon as 15 years from now.

Esty, instead, favors raising the $117,000 cap on income to which the country’s 6.2 percent Social Security tax applies.

Despite running a TV ad accusing Esty of wanting to “raise Social Security taxes,” Greenberg says he’d consider implementing part of her plan, too. He accuses her and other Democrats in Congress of refusing to engage in a “serious conversation and debate” about saving Social Security from insolvency.

Gun Control and Term Limits

Matt DeRienzo photo

Asked at a recent high school candidates’ forum what single issue they think they could influence the most if elected, Esty cited gun law reform following Sandy Hook, and Greenberg said he’d advocate for term limits.

Greenberg has pledged to serve no more than eight years in Congress if elected, and said he favors changing U.S. House terms from two to four years, and then limiting members to two terms. Politicians like Esty, he said, get elected and then immediately start raising money and warping their behavior and policy positions with an eye toward being re-elected. That prevents Congress from having tough discussions about and finding solutions for serious problems such as Social Security, he said.

Esty said that she didn’t choose the gun issue, but rather it “chose her” and “chose the district” when the Sandy Hook shooting happened.

She is vice chairwoman of a House task force on gun violence, and is focused on three specific changes to federal law — closing loopholes for online sales and gun shows so that the country has truly “universal” background checks on gun purchases, banning “straw purchases” of guns at the federal level, and making the interstate transport of illegal guns a felony.

Greenberg surprised many, including the National Rifle Association, when he said in their first debate together that he supported Esty’s call for universal background checks.

The next day, after the NRA abruptly dropped its rating of Greenberg’s candidacy from “A” to “F,” he said that Sandy Hook had changed his mind about background checks and that it was critical to keeping people with serious mental illness away from guns.

Since then, however, the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, which opposes universal background checks and has fought against a range of incremental gun restrictions since Sandy Hook, said that it was maintaining its support for Greenberg and believed that he’d ultimately vote their way in Washington. Esty’s campaign has criticized this and Greenberg’s refusal to say whether he’d support specific legislation on background checks that she has co-sponsored.

A Vulnerable Incumbent

Although the 5th District has been in the hands of Democrats since now-U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy upset 12-term Congresswoman Nancy Johnson in 2006, it has been considered a “swing district” that skews more conservative than the rest of the state and where independent voters greatly outnumber Democrats and Republicans.

Two years ago, Esty barely beat Roraback, who was very popular even among Democrats in his longtime state Senate district in Litchfield County.

Fearing a possible rematch in 2014, when they wouldn’t have the benefit of presidential election year turnout in the 5th District’s biggest cities, Democrats appointed Roraback to a Superior Court judge position soon after that election.

One of Esty’s biggest concerns continues to be turnout in the cities. Roraback beat her by a net margin of 18,000 votes in the district’s 37 other towns, but Esty’s crushing 26,000-vote-margin in New Britain, Waterbury, Meriden, and Danbury carried her to victory in 2012.

President Obama is not on the ballot this year, and doesn’t generate the same enthusiasm among the Democratic base. Nor is Murphy, who had a massive get-out-the-vote operation in the urban areas of his old district in support of his U.S. Senate bid against Linda McMahon.

First-term incumbent Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is on the ballot this time, and could be a serious drag on Esty’s candidacy. He’s in a dead heat statewide with Tom Foley, who he narrowly beat four years ago, but is expected to lose the 5th District by a significant margin. He lost the 5th by 30,000 votes four years ago.

In the final days of the campaign, Greenberg has ratcheted up his efforts to tie Esty to Obama and Malloy, and Esty has declined to appear with other Democratic candidates in rallies that First Lady Michelle Obama and President Obama planned to bolster Malloy’s candidacy in New Haven and Bridgeport.

Esty has also had to overcome a deep division in the Democratic base that emerged in her unlikely primary victory two years ago. She was opposed by the party’s labor unions and more progressive wings because of budget votes she took as a state legislator, her early opposition to the state’s paid sick leave law, and her involvement in the bipartisan, moderate “No Labels” movement. And her primary against former House Speaker Chris Donovan, a hero of that wing of the party, turned very nasty.

Although she had the nominal support of Donovan and labor union activists two years ago, they did not work enthusiastically on her behalf. Since then, Esty has co-sponsored federal paid sick leave legislation and has done a lot of fence-mending with liberal party activists, and it seems to have made a difference.

But the more Esty reaches out to the base, the less able she is to tout the “no party allegiance” persona she’d like to have in reaching out to independents, and the more susceptible she is to criticism from Greenberg.

Esty’s answer, in part, has been to get out in front with attacks on Greenberg, hitting the Social Security issue repeatedly and attempting to paint him as a right-wing “Tea Party” conservative who is too extreme for moderate independents and should get the liberal wing of the Democratic party firmly behind her.

Gary Rose, chairman of the political science department at Sacred Heart University, said Greenberg took far too long to “fight back.” He “held back” and as a result may have turned what was a very close race into a more comfortable situation for Esty.

“He was a punching bag there on the Social Security issue, veterans, pro-choice,” he said. “I think the counterattack might be a little late. He let her set the tempo on this race.”

In the Democratic primary against Donovan two years ago, her victory over Roraback and the way she has had Greenberg “on his heels” in this race, Rose sees a political acumen in Esty that could take her pretty far.

“I think this is just the beginning of her real entry into federal politics,” he said.

Esty’s Path to Congress

Esty frequently mentions on the campaign trail how her then 15-year-old daughter pushed her into politics. She was a “PTA mom” upset about what was happening in Cheshire, and her daughter told her to run for office or stop complaining.

She was elected to the town council, and then to a state representative seat. After losing that seat following her death penalty vote, she entered a 5th District congressional primary that was supposed to be Donovan’s to lose. Esty accumulated a formidable campaign war chest, however, thanks to the national fundraising prowess of Emily’s List and a last-minute personal loan of $600,000 from the candidate herself. And Donovan got caught up in an FBI investigation of campaign finance law violations that ultimately sent his finance director and campaign manager to prison.

Esty is a Harvard University- and Yale Law School-educated attorney and has at times faced backlash over the perception that she is an elitist who defaults to lecturing others on policy questions.

Esty was recently ranked as the 104th wealthiest member of Congress, joining fellow Connecticut delegation millionaires Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Rep. Jim Himes, in the top 20 percent.

The Greenberg campaign recently aired a TV ad using 12-year-old video of Esty speaking at a Cheshire budget hearing, before her days on the town council, telling senior citizens they could “move to another town” if they didn’t like how much was being spent on the school budget.

Her husband, Dan, teaches at Yale and was a consultant to large utility companies before joining Malloy’s administration as commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Several times during her first term in Congress, Esty was forced to return campaign contributions from lobbyists and executives at Northeast Utilities, and from developers who were facing a DEEP enforcement action, over criticism that they were an attempt to influence her husband.

Dan Esty stepped down as DEEP commissioner as his wife was gearing up for her re-election bid.

In addition to mending fences with labor unions, Esty has put a strong focus in her first term on bread-and-butter constituent service work and assisting local selectmen of both parties with legislation on issues such as a hydro-electric dam in Canton’s Collinsville section and federal funding for transportation projects.

Greenberg’s Chance

Greenberg, making his third straight run for the 5th District seat, made his fortune in residential and commercial real estate development in Connecticut and New York. He has estimated his personal net worth at between $20 million and $60 million, which would put him in the top 20 of wealthiest members of Congress should he be elected.

Greenberg talks about being a “different kind of candidate” in that he is running simply to “give something back to his country” and not “for himself.” He says that will free him to fearlessly advocate for tough solutions to problems and take votes that “might cost him re-election.”

While Esty’s lecturing can rub people the wrong way, Greenberg, also an Ivy League alum (Cornell) can come off as unprepared or buying into Fox News talking points on certain subjects. He frequently addresses topics by saying, “I’m not a scholar on this issue,” and then makes a controversial statement such as doubting the existence of man-made climate change or saying he supports universal background checks for gun purchases but doesn’t exactly know the particulars of the process.

He’s a fiscal conservative with a generous side. He and his wife founded the Simon Foundation, a dog rescue shelter, in Bloomfield. And he’s known for stopping his car on the side of the road to rescue stray animals.

Matt DeRienzo photo

He has also shown a more thoughtful side than the “true believer” ideologue reputation he developed in his first two runs for Congress. He changed his mind on the universal background check issue after Sandy Hook, and then reversed his position on raising the income cap on Social Security after discussing it with former 5th District Congresswoman Nancy Johnson. 

Greenberg finished third in a three-way 5th District Republican primary against Justin Bernier and nominee Sam Caligiuri in 2010, and then finished second in a four-way race with Bernier, Roraback and Lisa Wilson-Foley two years ago.

A controversy over former Gov. John Rowland loomed over the 2012 primary and spilled over into this year’s race as Rowland was tried and convicted this past fall on campaign finance corruption charges.

Rowland was convicted of conspiring with Wilson-Foley and her husband, Brian Foley, to secretly be paid through Foley’s nursing home chain for work he was doing to help her campaign.

When this first came out in a Register Citizen newspaper report during the 2012 primary campaign, Greenberg revealed that Rowland had approached him with a similar scheme — wanting to be paid through his animal shelter — in the run-up to the 2010 race.

Greenberg rejected Rowland’s offer, leading many to praise him for doing the honest thing when Wilson-Foley did not. But when the details of the situation were dissected at Rowland’s trial, Esty pounced.

Under cross-examination by Rowland’s attorney, it was revealed that Greenberg took some time to say “no” to Rowland. Greenberg described himself as “essentially gutless” in not wanting to offend the former governor or make him an enemy.

It also came out in the trial that Greenberg had paid someone else to do work at his animal shelter who, similar to Rowland, has peddled political influence and consulting to various candidates.

Matt DeRienzo photo

That someone was Ron Wilcox, a founder of the Connecticut Tea Party Patriots organization. He was paid more by the Simon Foundation to do fundraising work in 2012 than its executive director was paid at the time.

Wilcox supported Greenberg’s candidacy at a rally in 2012 and helped arrange an appearance on Greenberg’s behalf by political pundit, author and former Clinton administration advisor Dick Morris.

Greenberg has refused to talk about the Rowland trial outside of his testimony, but Wilcox and people close to the Greenberg campaign have said that he did nothing for the campaign other than that one event.

Greenberg said after losing the 2012 primary that he was unlikely to run again, but things changed when no strong alternative emerged to run for the Republicans. Party officials reportedly approached Dr. William Petit, whose personal tragedy in Cheshire led him to be a strong advocate for the death penalty — the very issue and situation that cost Esty re-election once before. But Petit declined, as did Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra, a Roraback ally who won national praise for handling her town’s response to, and recovery from, the Sandy Hook shooting.

Greenberg was unopposed for the Republican nomination this time, and social and fiscal conservatives finally felt they had someone who, unlike Roraback and some other past candidates, was a “true believer” on their issues.

But despite Greenberg’s personal wealth (he has contributed all but about $300,000 of the $1.5 million that has gone into his campaign), he has been outspent by a more than 3 to 1 ratio by Esty and the outside groups working on her behalf. The timing of his testimony in the Rowland trial came after Labor Day, just as voters traditionally start paying attention to the fall political races, and it’s unclear how his views on social issues will play in a district that embraced Chris Murphy and Nancy Johnson, a pro-choice, moderate Republican, for decades before him.

PistoneForCongress.org

Pistone on the Ballot

John Pistone, who describes himself on his website as an “unaffiliated, conservative candidate,” is also on the ballot this year but has not responded to efforts to contact him about his campaign.

Pistone’s website says he’s a Brookfield resident, and offers the slogan “You are not alone — when you vote Pistone.” He has a site at www.pistoneforcongress.net and also at pistoneforcongress.org.