Ex-State Rep. Esty Upsets Donovan in Connecticut Primary

Former one-term state Rep. Elizabeth Esty grabbed the Democratic nomination in the 5th Congressional District from House Speaker Christopher Donovan in Tuesday's primary
by | August 15, 2012
 

Former one-term state Rep. Elizabeth Esty grabbed the Democratic nomination in the 5th Congressional District from House Speaker Christopher Donovan in Tuesday's primary -- completing Donovan's dizzying fall from heavy favorite to also-ran in the span of 2 1/2 months amid a campaign-financing scandal.

Donovan conceded defeat shortly after 9:35 p.m. in a speech to supporters at the Augusta Curtis Cultural Center in his hometown of Meriden.

"While I won't be the Democratic nominee in November, I will keep fighting for the progressive causes I've always fought for, and I will be there with you," he said.

At the time Donovan spoke, Esty led with 43 percent to Donovan's 35 percent, with 99 of the district's 142 precincts reporting. The third Democrat in the primary, Dan Roberti, had 23 percent.

Esty, 52, of Cheshire, will face Republican state Sen. Andrew Roraback in the Nov. 6 election. He declared victory in his four-way GOP primary about 9:45 p.m.

Shortly before 10 p.m., Esty addressed about 100 of her jubilant supporters at the CoCo Key Water Resort and Convention Center in Waterbury.

"Face it -- folks didn't give us a chance. This was a long-shot campaign," she said. "But it shows that hard work matters." Esty said Democrats are "the big-tent party," meaning that they are inclusive and will settle internal differences for the Nov. 6 election to "fight for a better future for our children."

She blasted what she described as misguided attempts by national Republicans to meddle with Medicare and Social Security, and she said she would stand up for those programs.

Until May 31, Donovan, a member of the House since 1993 and speaker since 2009, had been widely considered a strong favorite to win the Democratic nomination for the seat in Congress that will be vacated by the Democrats' U.S. Senate nominee this year, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy. Donovan enjoyed strong labor-union support and political momentum as he won the endorsement at the Democrats' mid-May convention in the district.

But that all changed with federal prosecutors' May 31 announcement of their arrest a day earlier of Robert Braddock Jr., the finance director for Donovan's campaign, for allegedly trying to conceal the origin of thousands of dollars in contributions to Donovan.

Prosecutors said the money was funneled through straw contributors, or "conduits," who put their names on checks for funds that were provided by others in an alleged conspiracy aimed at getting Donovan, as speaker, to kill a pending bill to impose taxes on so-called "roll-your-own" tobacco shops.

Donovan denied involvement or knowledge of wrongdoing within his campaign, but the scandal mushroomed in the following weeks. An ongoing federal grand jury probe brought seven additional arrests by July 26 -- including that of Joshua Nassi, a former member of Donovan's Capitol staff who had served as his campaign manager. Donovan fired both Braddock and Nassi from their campaign posts after Braddock's May 30 arrest.

After his concession speech Tuesday night, Donovan did not talk about his plans. While he said he had called to congratulate Esty, he did not say if he would actively support her. In fact, when a Courant reporter asked his current campaign manager, Tom Swan, whether Donovan would consider running as a Nov. 6 candidate for the Working Families Party, he didn't rule it out. Swan said he couldn't say one way or the other because Donovan's campaign had not talked to Working Families Party officials.

Matt O'Connor, political director for the SEIU labor organization's local 32BJ, said at Donovan's Meriden gathering that unions had been strongly behind Donovan, but that even with his loss it is highly unlikely that union members would back a Republican in November:

"What Congress needs are more people like us, people who work every day," O'Connor said. "That's why we were with Chris. He's one of us. ... At the end of the day, Elizabeth [Esty] is going to have to show she's got the interests of working people in mind. She's got a couple of months to do that."

It appeared that Esty held back from directly attacking Donovan in her TV ads, as she did Roberti -- apparently anticipating that if she won, she would need help from Donovan's labor allies.

Roberti urged his supporters to help elect Esty. Speaking in defeat at a former bank building in Grand Street in Waterbury, he said of Democrats' effort to win back the U.S. House: "This is life or death for our country."

Esty is married to Daniel Esty, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's appointee as commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Queen's song "We Are The Champions" was playing at 10:30 p.m. in the ballroom as the crowd thinned out at Esty's gathering, with the older people leaving and the younger ones staying, cheering and singing.

Esty's in-laws, John and Katharine Esty, made about 700 calls the last few days to voters.

"Some people were pretty tired of getting calls," John Esty said, but generally people listened to what he and his wife had to say.

(c)2012 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

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