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Esty upheaval could cost Democrats the 5th District in November

When I left the state for a long winter vacation in late February, the race to succeed the most unpopular governor in the Union was a mess, with a dozen or so no-names, has-beens and never-wills from each party flopping about like so many beached whales.

Nothing much has changed. We still have too many candidates offering too few ideas. Check out the content of last week’s debate among nine Republican candidates for evidence.

What has changed is closer to home. The district represented by nearly everyone reading this newspaper currently has no idea who its next representative in Congress will be, thanks to the incompetence of the incumbent.

As a result, there’s a decent chance that Connecticut will actually be represented by one Republican in Congress next year. Elizabeth Esty, the 5th District congresswoman, will not be running for a fourth term after it was revealed she had covered up the misconduct of her chief of staff, kept him on the job, paid him a nice severance, then recommended him for a new position.  

Since then, there have been suggestions by Republicans and Democrats that she resign, but that would necessitate a special election in the sprawling district that takes up real estate in all of the counties west of the Connecticut River. (Gerrymandering is alive and well in Blue states too. The 5th was designed to be a swing district back when Connecticut Republicans were capable of swinging.) This would be a questionable expense for the district’s taxpayers and they’d still have to do it all over again in November.

Esty had barely completed her “I will not seek reelection” sentence when candidates for the Succession began selflessly announcing their availability. First off was the former first selectwoman of Simsbury, Mary Glassman, who is hoping no one will remember she once ran as Dannel Malloy’s running mate in his first, failed race for governor. By the time you read this, she’ll surely be enjoying the company of more Democratic hopefuls.

The Republican field is more interesting than usual, thanks to the possibility of there being a candidate or two who could actually win the election. Foremost among these is State Rep. William Petit, the lone survivor of the 2007 home invasion in which his wife and daughters were murdered. Also considering a run is the well-regarded state senator from Canton, Kevin Witkos. Both would be strong candidates, unlike Mark Greenberg, who lost to Esty twice, and Rep. Dan Carter, who lost to Sen. Richard Blumenthal in 2016.

Before Esty quit the race, the only Republican candidate was Manny Santos, a former Meriden mayor. I saw him tell a television interviewer he is pro-Trump all the way, which may make his effort considerably more perilous. 

The Republican who should be running for Congress is New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart, who’s trying to make the big jump to governor at the rather unusual age of 30 — 31 in May — arguing it isn’t her age but her experience that should count. It’s a valid point. She’s been the successful Republican mayor of a Democratic city of 75,000 for five years, supervising about 5,000 employees and overseeing a $250 million budget.  

This is certainly impressive for one so young, but a couple of terms in Congress doesn’t usually hurt — Elizabeth Esty excepted — and many Connecticut governors have taken that route. John Lodge, Abe Ribicoff, Tom Meskill, Ella Grasso, John Rowland and Lowell Weicker come quickly to mind. Republican Meskill, in fact, went to Congress after being mayor of Stewart’s New Britain. And former Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy doesn’t provide the best role model for the mayor-to-governor move.

With or without the mayor, the opening in the 5th will no doubt enliven things. What had been five prospective coronations of incumbents is now four coronations and a contest and that is good for small “d” democracy. It is, however, not good for the Democrats nationally, because the party is hoping to ride the president’s unpopularity into control of both Houses. Losing a sure thing doesn’t enhance that possibility.

The race will no doubt attract the attention of the national Democratic and Republican parties, which is sometimes good, and their special-interest donors, which is often unfortunate.

The question for those of us who live in the district is whether or not we will go from not-so-hot to better — or worse.

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.