In the early 2000s, Elizabeth Esty contemplated enrolling in divinity school.
“I felt a call to make a difference,” said Esty, who was raised Presbyterian but now attends a Congregational church.
Instead, the Harvard-educated lawyer ran for state representative, setting herself on a path that led to her election to Congress in 2012.
Now 57, Esty is seeking a third term in the House representing Connecticut’s 5th District, a vast chunk of the state that reaches from the Hartford suburbs to upper Fairfield County. She portrays herself as a bridge-building moderate who can work with the Republican majority.
“She’s a workhorse,” said her Connecticut colleague, fellow Democrat John Larson, D-1st District. Esty isn’t showy, Larson said, “but she gets things done.”
Esty’s Republican opponent, Sherman First Selectman Clay Cope, sharply disagrees with Larson’s assessment. He has described Esty as an out-of-touch and ineffectual politician whose liberal views are not in sync with those of the district’s independent-minded voters, 43 percent of whom are not affiliated with either major party.
“She’s not a good fit for the district,” Cope said recently. “She can’t point to a single results-oriented accomplishment.”
Cope has attacked her for failing to visit each of the sprawling district’s 41 communities, which Esty calls untrue and preposterous.
“The job is not sticking pins in a map … as if you’re on a travel tour with your kids to the state parks,” said Esty, a married mother of three. “The fact that I don’t issue a press release every time I go to a town on every issue doesn’t mean I’m not there.”
In response to Cope’s criticism that she has failed to accomplish anything of substance during her two terms in the House, Esty blames Republican leadership for the gridlock dogging the chamber. Yet she pointed to a number of achievements, including co-authoring legislation that strengthens federal support for science, technology engineering and math education. The bill, signed into law last year, is the product of her alliance with Republican U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, a staunch conservative who is far to the right of Esty on almost every issue.
“I disagree profoundly with Rep. Smith’s views on climate change but where we can agree, we do,” Esty said.
“In a very unproductive Congress, I’ve found ways as a junior member from a small state in the minority party to get things done,” she added. “How did I do it? Through hard work and knowing it is my job to work across the aisle and finding ways we can get things done together.”
It’s a role she says comes naturally. Esty’s father and paternal grandparents were Republicans. “Good ideas come from both parties,” she said.
Her mother and maternal grandmother were Democrats. “They were fierce and feisty on social issues,” she recalled.
Esty’s grandmother served on a school board in the 1950s in Oak Park, Ill., a Chicago suburb. “She really saw the face of northern segregation,” Esty said. She later became a lobbyist for the Presbyterian Church.
Esty’s mother was active in the gay rights movement back in the 1970s. “Over the course of time, she testified in front of the U.S. Senate on the Defense of Marriage Act,” Esty said, “and she lived long enough to see all four of her children married, including her gay son to his partner of over 20 years.”
Despite her emphasis on what she’s been able to accomplish, Esty’s time in Congress has been overshadowed by one big disappointment: the failure to pass new gun control legislation after the Sandy Hook school shootings.
The murders of 20 schoolchildren and six educators happened in December 2012, after Esty was elected, but before she was sworn in. She found out while sitting in a class for new members of Congress at Harvard University.
“Sandy Hook impacted quite a lot,” Esty said, growing emotional as she recalls the details of that day. “Nobody should go through what the people of this community have gone through, and yet in the three years and nine months since then, 100,000 Americans have died from guns and in the House of Representatives, we have not been allowed a single debate on a single bill.”
Esty was among a group of House Democrats who staged a sit-in in the chamber in June to protest inaction on gun control, including the failure of legislation requiring expanded background checks.
“I will continue to fiercely advocate for that because I know it saves lives,” Esty said. “I have spent a lot of time over the last three and half years getting educated, from [the Bureau of] Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms [and Explosives], from police officers, from psychologists, from teachers, from public health officials to immerse myself in the data.”
Esty said her willingness to take on the National Rifle Association on gun control is a key difference with Cope, who says he supports a “literally interpretation” of the Second Amendment.
“The gun lobby,” she said, “would love nothing more than to take me out.”