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Democratic hopefuls vie for 5th District seat at debate

Democratic candidates for U.S. Congress in the 5th District participated in a debate Tuesday evening, April 10. From left, Cheshire Town Council member and state legislator Elizabeth Esty, social activist Dan Roberti of Kent and Connecticut Speaker of the House Chris Donovan of Meriden.

By Janet Manko

TORRINGTON — The front steps of City Hall were filled with people waving colorful campaign signs in support of Democratic candidates for U.S. Congress in the 5th District Tuesday evening, April 10.

Inside, at 7 p.m., the candidates faced off in a debate. Outside, one of those on the steps was Lucas Bejarano, a student at the Kent School in Kent who resides in New York City but was learning about the nuts and bolts of American politics by working on the campaign for Dan Roberti.

“One of my teachers told us about the opportunity, and it’s been really interesting to be able to see how a campaign works,” Bejarano said.

The three candidates who participated were Connecticut Speaker of the House Chris Donovan of Meriden; Cheshire Town Council member and state legislator Elizabeth Esty; and social activist Dan Roberti of Kent. The room was just about full, with an audience of around 100 people, including both Democrats and journalists.

There were six questioners on the panel: Judge Anne C. Dranginis; Amy Calabrese; Attorney Mitchell Fishman; Stephen Michna; Lawrence Sweeny and Philip Simonin. The event was hosted by Torrington, Litchfield, Harwinton, Goshen, Morris, Warren and Woodbury Democratic Town Committees and moderated by Scott Bates, National Security Expert for WNPR and president of the Center for National Policy.

State Rep. Roberta Willis of Salisbury (D-64) spoke to the crowd of supporters, thanking them for all the hard work they had done to get U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy elected to the 5th District seat since he first won it in 2006. Murphy is now running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

Who and what inspired them

While the three candidates agreed on many issues, including same-sex marriage, contraception availability for women, supporting a Buy American policy and decriminalizing marijuana, each had a different set of reasons for supporting their positions. Each evoked family members who had inspired them to serve in the public realm.

For Esty, it was strong women who were feisty activists: her mother and grandmother. She also noted it was her 15-year-old daughter who encouraged her to run for office to make a difference in their town and the state.

For Donovan, it was his immigrant grandfather, whom he described as a carpenter, who worked hard and took care of his family through manual labor.

For Roberti, it was his mother, who had been ill with cancer for five years, as well as his great-uncle Jim who was a pharmacist at Petricone’s in Torrington during the flood of 1955, going back to the store to retrieve necessary medications and having to be evacuated in so doing.

Esty and Roberti stressed that they are not career politicians, while Donovan touted his achievements in legislation in the state House of Representatives, including increasing the state minimum wage and reforming campaign finance laws.

When asked during a so-called Lightning Round what book had the most important impact on their political development, Roberti cited Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Esty her Constitutional Law textbook in law school, and Donovan John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Negative campaigning

concerns

When questioned about whether they would all sign a pledge to avoid all negative campaigning, which had originally been discussed at a Southbury meeting, the candidates revealed a major line of disagreement. Esty said she would sign no pledges, saying she trusts voters to be able to judge the candidates and that contrast among the candidates should be fine in a campaign.

“Contrast is fine, but not character assassination,” she said. “We should all be, and I am, proud to defend our records.”

Donovan supported taking the pledge against negative campaigning, saying the public is looking for positive interaction among candidates.

Roberti said he supported the pledge as well and would take it, but called Donovan to task for posting on his campaign’s website a video of Esty “out of context” speaking about being unwilling to take the pledge when it was discussed in Southbury. That was wrong and amounted to negative campaigning, Roberti said.

The discussion went on to other topics from there, curtailed by the timed debating style of the discussion. After the debate a representative for Donovan, Gabe Rosenberg, expressed disappointment that Roberti “twisted the video comment for a cheap campaign hit.” Rosenberg said the video was not taken out of context, but rather that Donovan posted the entire clip of the comment by Esty, without any editing at all. To see the video, go to www.donovanforcongress.com/acampaignyoudeserve.

Winsted Democrat Michael J. Renzullo, who is running for the 63rd District seat for state representative, was in the audience at the debate, and commented after the event that there are three good Democratic candidates running for the 5th District seat.

“I’m supporting Chris [Donovan] since I’ve known him the longest, but all the candidates are well-spoken, confident and knowledgeable about the issues.” Any of them would serve the state well, he said.

The presidential primary is April 24. The primary for municipal, state and district office (representative in Congress and multi-town or single-town state senator and state representative), justice of the peace and registrars of voters is Aug. 14. The general election is Nov. 6.