The 41 cities and towns in the 5th Congressional District last elected a Republican in 2006, but Sherman First Selectman Clay Cope is hoping to end his party’s losing streak.
Of all of the House races in Connecticut this year, Cope’s may be the closest.
It’s the most Republican of Connecticut’s five congressional districts. There are only four big cities — Danbury, Meriden, New Britain, and Waterbury — which tend to lean Democratic.
But it’s still considered a long shot. The National Republican Congressional Committee hasn’t dedicated any resources to the race like it has in the past. An NRCC “young gun” designation would come with a much-needed boost in campaign funds.
In July, according to Federal Elections Commission documents, Cope had raised more than $61,000 — many times more than any of his fellow Republicans. However, it’s still far less than the $1.5 million his Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, has raised.
One of Cope’s biggest criticisms of Esty, of Cheshire, has been what he describes as her absence from the district.
“I never met with Elizabeth Esty in any official capacity. She’s never been to Sherman,” Cope said during a recent interview. “So that’s why I’m running, because I think I’ll do a better job.”
Cope, who has served as first selectman of the town of about 3,500 residents, touted his three terms as chief administrator for the bedroom community on the New York border.
Cope said Sherman’s budget is in the black and they have rebuilt its Rainy Day fund and paid down past debts.
Cope’s history in Sherman may be why he perceives Esty as lacking an understanding of local concerns, and why that cuts deep for him. “You have to be present,” he said. “You’ve got to be in the district. You’ve got to visit every town. I believe there’s four or five towns she hasn’t visited in any official capacity. I’ve been first selectman for five and a half years, she’s been in for four years. She still has not been here.”
Tom Stewart, a spokesman for Esty’s campaign, refuted this claim, saying Esty has been “to every “city and town in the district and her outreach reflects a deep and genuine commitment to meet with and listen to residents throughout central and northwest Connecticut.” Moreover, he wrote, “Elizabeth has reached out to Mr. Cope more than 20 times since she took office to invite him to community events and to ask how she can be helpful to him. He never responded, and only showed any interest in meeting with her after he decided to run for Congress.”
Cope vows to visit every town in his district at least once a year if elected “to stay in touch and up to date on local issues.” It also falls in line with how Cope perceives his own duty as a public servant — to satisfy the voter. “I agreed to run because I am very big on customer service as a public servant,” he said.
Over the last three years, Esty has held at least nine “Congress on Your Corner” events where constituents are able to speak with Esty one-on-one to share their thoughts regarding issues.
It’s about the economy, stupid
Cope said his number one priority in Congress will be job growth and the economy.
“All the Republican presidential candidates have plans to lower and simplify taxes,” he said. “We need to lower federal spending to get a balanced budget and shift as much power and money as possible back to the states.”
However, when it comes to Connecticut’s economy, he blames Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for sluggish job growth.
“Malloy in my view equates Obama, equates Clinton, equates Esty.” In particular, Cope chalks General Electric’s decision to move its corporate headquarters from Fairfield to Boston in large part up to Malloy’s “failed policies.”
“We have people in Sherman that work for GE, and that are being transferred to Boston,” he said. “So they’re tearing families out of the community they love and then moving to New Hampshire because they know that they’re going to be transferred through GE. And that’s a shame. Why would we lose a major company?”
Asked what specific types of jobs he hopes to attract to the state, Cope said the issue isn’t about the types of jobs, but the overall environment.
“It’s not the kinds of jobs that I want to get back into Connecticut, in our state, I just want to get jobs back. It’s got to be a friendly environment for businesses to thrive,” Cope said. “It’s not just that we’re losing GE, it’s that we’re not attracting businesses. We’ve got to lower taxes, make our state attractive to employers.”
A simplified tax code is a crucial component to that, in Cope’s view. Repeatedly, he emphasized that the government needs greater “efficiency.”
“I’d love to use Sherman as a good example of this. We operate with a balanced budget here. I do it every year in Sherman. I finish the year in the black, I pay down the debt, I don’t add to it,” Cope said. “The politicians in Hartford and Washington can’t. We need to get a balanced budget first, and then address the 19-trillion dollar deficit.”
Threats from abroad
The non-local, non-economic portion of Cope’s campaign is his deep distrust of current U.S. efforts against the so-called Islamic State. If his tax policy is all about “efficiency,” then his foreign policy is all about “accountability.”
And here, Cope ties the battle against terrorism directly to another foreign policy topic that’s been heavily discussed this election: the southern border.
“ISIS has already announced that it is in Mexico, and it threatened to cross the southern border,” Cope said. “So we need to secure the border and stop the flow of illegal immigrants to do that. It’s a new and deadly threat that ISIS represents.”
His campaign pointed to a Fox News report about one incident involving a Minnesota man accused of joining ISIS and wanting to open up a smuggling route through Mexico.
Cope emphasized concern about a terrorist attack through the southern border several times throughout the interview. “As far as fighting ISIS, we need to hold our government accountable for enforcing the laws that we already have on the books related to immigration,” Cope said. “As well as enforcement in keeping us safe from ISIS-inspired terrorism.”
Cope, a Texas native, said his ideal vision for the southern border involves heavier enforcement of laws already on the books, as well as an increase in surveillance and staff. Cope also called for “an actual boundary that would prevent people from coming in illegally.”
Asked whether that would resemble the border wall proposed by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, Cope instead emphasized heightened security and “keeping staff there so that they’re aware of what’s happening.” Cope’s campaign manager later clarified that “we have not taken a position one way or another on whether a physical barrier like a wall is required.”
At the same time, Cope called the current immigration system “broken” and said “I don’t think people would be flooding in to work here illegally if the system were working. So that’s another thing that I definitely want to look at and get that fixed. It’s a very complicated issue. It’s not really a sound-byte issue.”
An openly gay former fashion executive, Cope is campaigning on messages echoed by both the Republican establishment and Trump, who won in the 5th District by huge margins. Cope described a recent Trump rally at Sacred Heart University, which he attended, as “highly energetic, and the messages that he was sending about losing jobs and GE and speaking to a crowd in Connecticut were met with a tremendous amount of applause.”
Asked whether he supported Trump, Cope responded “Trump won in the 5th District, so I absolutely support him. He is the Republican presidential candidate that won in our district.” When asked if he’d support Trump had another candidate won the Connecticut primary, Cope replied, “That’s not what happened. The fact is Trump won in my district and in my town.”
Cope is supporting Trump, but he wasn’t as enthusiastic about the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last month.
“Watching the Republican Convention, I have to say, Andres Sanchez and I are left out in the cold. The R platform is decidedly not gay-friendly, and I’m confused: they (The CT R’s) embraced me as their unanimous Connecticut Congressional nominee for the 5th,” Cope wrote on his Facebook page.
Sanchez is his life partner who is an immigrant from Lima, Peru.
The platform included calls to overturn the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide, legalizing “conversion therapy” for minors, and discouraging gay parents from adopting children.
Cope is one of many gay Republicans who have derided the platform.
“I can never condone discrimination against anyone and I was very heartened to hear Pence say yesterday on the news that he also does not want to discriminate against anyone,” Cope said. “Voters vote for candidates, not party platforms. I don’t agree with every aspect of the platform, but my focus as a candidate is on the issues important to the voters in this district.”
John Pistone, of Brookfield, describes himself as an independent conservative. He did not receive any support at the Republican Convention, and has taken out petitions to get onto the ballot independently. No party affiliation was listed on the petition request to the Secretary of the State’s office.