As a freshman state lawmaker in 2009, Esty stepped into the center of the emotional debate over whether to abolish the death penalty. The issue was especially crucial for Esty because she represented
Esty, a Democrat in a Republican-leaning district, said she was "very well aware'' of the political risks when she voted in the General Assembly in May 2009 to abolish capital punishment. The following year, she lost her re-election bid to Republican Al Adinolfi, a proponent of the death penalty who had the backing of Dr. William Petit, the lone survivor of the tragedy.
Esty's state legislative career was suddenly over after only two years.
Now, as she runs for Congress in a nationally watched race in the 5th District, Esty has no regrets.
"If elected members of any body — whether it's a state house or Congress — were not willing to take career-ending or at least election-losing votes, I would not have the right to vote today,'' Esty said in an interview.
Esty said she has strong moral convictions against the death penalty. She worked on two capital punishment cases as a student at Yale Law School and later as an attorney. In addition, she served as the legal adviser for a year-long study on the death penalty.
"I felt it was my obligation to vote for what was best for the state, even if not popular at the time or in my district,'' Esty said. "That allows me to put my head on my pillow at night, and it allows me to face my children. There are things that matter more than your election. That may take difficult votes, may take career-ending votes for people, but if we aren't willing to do that, then we're not going to move forward.''
Esty took that chance on the death penalty and lost in 2010.
She then took another chance when she decided to run in a Democratic primary against the sitting House speaker,
"Not one person told me not to run,'' Esty said over lunch at a
When asked if that surprised her, Esty said, "Yes. It also told me my instinct was right.''
Despite the long odds, Esty says now that she thought she would defeat Donovan all along — with or without the scandal.
"I thought I would be a stronger candidate in the general election,'' she said.
Esty won the three-way Democratic primary in mid-August by seven percentage points and is now facing Republican state Sen.
One of Roraback's TV commercials harkens back to her hometown of Cheshire — to Esty's days as a
The ad shows Esty standing up at a town council meeting, advocating for more funding in a community where senior citizens wanted the town fathers to hold the line on property taxes. Esty addresses the taxpayers by saying, "You're always welcome to move to one of our neighboring towns.''
Roraback's 30-second commercial highlights that statement twice and then ends by saying, "It's shameful. It's wrong. It's Elizabeth Esty.''
Esty does not dispute the quote in the commercial, saying the clip was from about 10 years ago at a town council meeting. But she noted that she worked later as an elected member of the town council to find solutions both for young families with children in the public schools and for senior citizens who are struggling to pay their increasing property taxes.
"On the council, we did do a dramatic increase in the senior property tax credit program, and that made a significant difference in people's lives. It's an example of how I'm a problem solver. It's an example of what I do bring to the table.''
But Adinolfi, her former opponent, points to a 2008 letter from six Cheshire residents that said Esty favored the tax relief program only after they had collected 3,000 signatures to bring it to town.
Esty, 53, took a long, circuitous path to Cheshire after living in spots around the country. She was born outside Chicago in the suburban village of Oak Park, later lived in northern California, then moved to a small town in Minnesota at the age of 12. Education was important in her family, as both her father and grandfather were engineers. Her father attended Amherst College and the
With that background, the young Elizabeth Henderson thought about attending Harvard College.
"It just appealed to me. I liked New England,'' Esty said. "I applied to three colleges. Seriously, there were no guidance counselors. I just thought Harvard sounded great. So let's see if I get in. I didn't really have a big back-up plan.''
When she finally arrived at Harvard with two small suitcases, Esty's residence adviser was a law student named
Jepsen recalled in an interview that Elizabeth was dating a young man named Dan Esty at the time. They have now been married for 27 years, and Dan Esty is now the state's commissioner of energy and environmental protection. (She has been criticized for accepting contributions from individuals who work for companies regulated by her husband, but she says those contributions represent a minor part of the total contributions, and she has asked some supporters to avoid contributing in order to avoid any appearances of a conflict of interest.)
"She was a rare breed, back then,'' Jepsen said. "She was a political science major, and it was a pretty male-dominated major. She stood out as a young woman.''
The two Harvard Democrats remained in contact through the decades, and Jepsen watched her as she battled for re-election in 2010 after voting to abolish the death penalty.
"It was a totally gutsy vote and the fact that she didn't back down from her principles showed her integrity,'' Jepsen said. "It's a very difficult district for a Democrat. It might have been the most Republican seat that was held by a Democrat," Jepsen said. "I've never heard of a Democrat holding that seat. I admire her standing on principle.''
But Adinolfi —- who defeated Esty in 2010 — said her vote showed that she was out of step with her hometown.
"It was very wrong for her to go against it, especially when 80 percent of the people in Cheshire were against it,'' Adinolfi said of the death penalty. "Sometimes you have to vote not your conscience, but your constituents' conscience.''
Since that vote, Esty says she has run into a personal friend of Dr. Petit's who had opposed her in her race. Now, two years later, she says she has the friend's support, showing that times have changed in a different race for a different office.
"The trial, indeed, did happen exactly during the election season,'' Esty said. "It was the perfect storm by the time it happened. But I do believe that's what leadership requires.''
She says she stuck to her principles and would do the same thing again.