Well, that happened fast.
Just last week, the congressional races here in Connecticut looked like a real snooze-fest. Now there’s a wide-open contest for a suddenly open seat in the state’s most competitive district, and it’s all thanks to the mind-bogglingly awful way in which U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, handled a harassment complaint in her office.
You’ve probably heard the story by now, but it goes like this:
Esty’s chief of staff had a relationship with a woman who was also on the staff, but sometime after they broke it off and she had resigned from her job in Esty’s office, he got drunk and called her up and threatened to kill her. This was reported to Esty, who dithered, talked to lawyers, started a feeble investigation, and then finally let him go. He wasn’t allowed to leave without some parting gifts, though! He got a lovely severance payment, his college loans forgiven, a non-disclosure agreement that somehow bound Esty’s entire staff to stay quiet about the whole thing, and the promise of a letter of recommendation.
This is bad enough in and of itself, but it’s made much worse by the fact that Esty was a vocal supporter of the #MeToo movement, which focuses on sexual harassment and abuse directed at women in the workplace.
So, nice job all around, Congresswoman. I don’t think you could have handled that worse.
Under enormous pressure from state Democrats, Esty announced Monday that she wouldn’t be running for re-election. There are still calls for her to flat-out resign, and she may yet. In the meantime, though, her announcement has touched off a mad scramble to become her successor.
Thus far the declared candidates are Democrat Mary Glassman, the former first selectwoman of Simsbury, and Republicans Manny Santos, the former mayor of Meriden, and former Northeast Utilities IT worker Craig Diangelo. Possible entries also include Democrats Dan Roberti and state Rep. Michelle Cook, and Republicans Mark Greenberg, Dan Carter, state Rep. William Petit, and state Sens. Kevin Witkos and Eric Berthel.
There are plenty of really interesting possible candidates who have said they aren’t running, like the Republican mayor of New Britain, Erin Stewart. Stewart may change her mind if she can’t get traction in the governor’s race — which so far she can’t.
The district itself is a strange one. It’s shaped kind of like someone holding out an oven mitt with which to gingerly grab Berlin. It includes Danbury and most of the northwestern quarter of the state, but it also includes New Britain and Meriden while excluding most of Torrington and all of Bristol. This beast was created in 2001 to be a competitive district for Republican Rep. Nancy Johnson and Democratic Rep. Jim Maloney, who were both squeezed into the newly consolidated district after Connecticut lost a House seat.
The district was held by the victorious Johnson until 2006, when then-state Sen. Chris Murphy defeated her. It’s been held by Democrats ever since, and is now seen as fairly safe territory. Still, Republicans have come closer here to regaining the seat than in any of the other congressional districts.
There are two things happening in the district that make it this way: first, there’s a deepening conservatism in parts of Litchfield County — which was the only county to vote for Trump in 2016. Second, the Farmington Valley, once a Republican stronghold, has become more and more Democratic over time. This mirrors the nationwide migration of wealthy, college-educated whites from the GOP to the Democrats, which has been going on since the George W. Bush years.
So, if a Democrat can run up big numbers in the four cities of Danbury, Waterbury, Meriden, and New Britain, and also do well enough to grab several towns in the Farmington Valley, they win. A Republican has to somehow mitigate that massive edge the cities give Democrats, and also be moderate enough to appeal to those wealthy white voters.
Manny Santos has the potential to do that, as does Erin Stewart. Stewart is especially interesting because she is quite moderate, works well with the Democratic majority in her city, and is both young and a woman. That’s a refreshingly new face for Republicans.
It’s still going to be tough going for any Republican — Democrats have too many built-in advantages. The 5th is very susceptible to national political swings, and if 2018 turns into a wave election for Democrats, not even someone like Erin Stewart may be able to pull off a win.
Right now, given the prevailing political winds, I’d say this is a Democrat’s race to lose. That likely means we’re in for a really nasty primary, though, so hold onto your hats!
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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