In one of the most stunning and precipitous falls from grace in recent memory, Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty is now toast — the victim of her own bad judgment in failing to adequately protect one of her staffers from her chief of staff’s predatory and abusive behavior.
I’m not sure if I can remember a Connecticut politician who otherwise had solid approval ratings drive herself into a ditch so quickly and unexpectedly. Even former Gov. John Rowland’s demise was a fairly slow but steady march toward the abyss — and later, to prison not once but twice.
If you’ve been hiding in a cave — or, as is the case with too many news consumers, you pay little attention to what goes on in your own state — Hearst Connecticut Media broke the story last Thursday that Esty took her sweet time in responding on behalf of a former staffer, Anna Kain, who said she’d been punched, screamed at, and was the victim of a death threat at the hands of Esty’s chief of staff, Tony Baker. That story was quickly followed by another from the Washington Post. When the situation became untenable, Esty again insisted she would not resign but later announced she would not run for a fourth term.
It would be one thing if Esty had simply failed to act to protect Kain in a timely manner — as dreadful as that would have been — but she made a series of mistakes that prolonged Kain’s pain and led to the congresswoman’s much-deserved downfall.
Among those mistakes: Rather than firing or suspending Baker immediately, Esty consulted with lawyers and others, eventually co-signing a nondisclosure agreement with Baker before letting him go three months too late; she gave him a taxpayer-funded $5,000 in severance pay and wrote a nice letter of recommendation that helped him land on his feet with a position in the Ohio office of Sandy Hook Promise, of all places.
Esty acknowledged some responsibility in not acting quickly enough but her next major mistake came in the form of a blame-the-system excuse. Then she reimbursed Baker’s severance payment to the treasury, presumably in the hope that it would make everyone feel better. That gave the appearance of a leader trying to deflect responsibility away from herself.
The reaction was so swift and furious that it even made this seasoned political observer’s head spin. I fully expected the first round of denunciations from Republicans, including party chair JR Romano, who called on her to resign and said Esty “behaved … egregiously,” which of course she did.
But Democratic leaders and media outlets quickly jumped on the bandwagon. At first there was muted criticism from the usual suspects: Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy.
Then, one after another, Democratic leaders in the General Assembly and elsewhere stepped up to call for Esty’s resignation: Looney; Flexer; Doyle; Urban; Bysiewicz; Curry; Mattei. Then the Hartford Courant editorial board followed suit.
But when you think about it, it’s not so surprising that Democrats would flee Esty’s sinking ship. Committed progressives have never really liked her anyway. Harken back to 2012 when Esty was battling three other candidates for the Democratic nomination to succeed Murphy, who was running for Senate.
One of Esty’s rivals was Chris Donovan, at the time the Speaker of the state House of representatives. Donovan’s campaign became embroiled in a funding scandal and he quickly turned into damaged goods. Nevertheless, Donovan was a staunch progressive and was tight with labor unions. Most Donovan supporters were wary of the moderate Esty, whom popular Danbury blogger Alfonso Robinson of the now-defunct My Left Nutmeg, called “Republican light.”
Sixteen years ago, when Esty was a Cheshire PTO member, she famously told a group of taxpayers who were opposed to the local school budget that they “are always welcome to move to one of our neighboring towns.” That kind of entitlement doesn’t go over well with liberals or conservatives.
Esty also attacked another 2012 rival, up-and-comer Dan Roberti, who for a while was leading in the polls for the nomination. In a debate in Litchfield, Esty launched a broadside against Roberti, branding him a lobbyist and said it “should scare every voter in the 5th District.” Not surprisingly, Roberti posted a statement on Facebook on Saturday calling on Esty to resign and added that he was “approached by four people who asked me to primary her.” He declined. Though after Esty bowed out, he reportedly is reconsidering.
Democrats are nervous as they grapple with the possibility of a damaged party brand. They wondered out loud about Esty’s viability; now they don’t have to. Since the 5th is a swing district, the election in November looks like it could be, despite popular wisdom, the Republicans’ to lose.
For the time being, I’ll leave it to others such as my colleague Susan Bigelow to assess the political landscape, but the Fightin’ 5th is now officially up for grabs — even with the odious Donald Trump at the top of the party. Click here for Susan’s latest analysis of the 5th District.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at email@example.com.
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