Facing heavy criticism, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty LAW ’85, D-Conn., announced on Monday that she will not seek re-election after it was revealed that she had covered up allegations of abuse and sexual harassment against her former chief of staff.
The Washington Post reported last Thursday that Esty had kept Tony Baker, the ex-chief of staff, on her team for three months after she learned in May 2016 that he had physically abused and threatened to kill another former staffer, Anna Kain, whom he had dated. According to the Post, Esty also signed a nondisclosure agreement preventing her from discussing the details of Baker’s dismissal, gave him $5,000 in severance pay and wrote him a letter of recommendation for his job at Sandy Hook Promise, from which he has since been dismissed. Esty, who was facing calls to resign from prominent Connecticut politicians from both parties, wrote in a Facebook post that she had decided it was in the best interest of her constituents and her family to retire from Congress at the end of the year.
“Too many women have been harmed by harassment in the workplace,” she wrote. “In the terrible situation in my office, I could have and should have done better.”
In May 2016, the Post reported, Baker had left a threatening voicemail for Kain: “You better f—–g reply to me or I will f—–g kill you,” the recording said. According to the Post, Esty found out about the voicemail within a week, though she did not dismiss Baker until three months later. Kain also told the Post that Baker had sexually harassed and punched her when she was working as a staffer.
Following the revelations, numerous prominent Democrats and Republicans called on Esty to resign, although she remained adamant through the Easter weekend that she would not step down.
State Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, an architect of the “Time’s Up Act” introduced by Connecticut Democrats in the state Senate, wrote in a statement released Saturday that it was “time for Rep. Esty to step aside.”
“Instead of immediately suspending her chief of staff once she learned of the allegations, she allowed him to work for her and oversee her staff for months after and then kept the ultimate resolution a secret,” she wrote. “This type of complicit behavior contributes to the culture of secrecy around abuse and harassment in our decision-making bodies, and it’s got to stop.”
In another statement released Saturday, Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney called on Esty to resign. “As I have said recently in public hearing testimony, we are in the midst of a national reckoning concerning sexual harassment and sexual assault,” he wrote. “Sexual harassment is continuing to be exposed across all types of industries and all levels of government — regardless of party.”
As pressure mounted over the weekend, increasing numbers of Connecticut lawmakers called for Esty’s resignation. Before she announced on Monday shortly before 5 p.m. that she would not be seeking re-election, Esty had asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate her own conduct.
State Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, told the News he was deeply disappointed in Esty’s handling of the Baker allegations, and that he approved of her decision not to seek re-election.
Lesser, who noted that he had known Esty for many years, said that though he had been surprised by the original allegations against her, he was not surprised by her decision to not seek re-election. He said although he was concerned about the possibility of a Republican challenge to her seat, he expects the midterm elections to be driven by opposition to the President Donald Trump’s agenda in Washington.
“We have to figure out how to go forward and make sure that all of us in our actions create workplaces where people are safe, and where harassment and violence are unacceptable,” Lesser said.
Before the revelations, Esty had been an outspoken supporter of the #MeToo movement.
State Rep. Dave Yaccarino, R-North Haven, expressed his support for Esty’s decision, but noted that she had been “pressured” into making the call. “You can’t advocate for rights for folks, especially women, and then let this happen and not do anything about it,” he said.
J.R. Romano, the chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, said he will not “fully believe” Esty’s announcement until she begins to divest funds from her campaign accounts and return campaign money to her donors.
“My fear is that this was just a tactic to stop the bleeding,” he said.
Both Connecticut senators in Washington expressed approval of Esty’s decision not to run in statements released on Monday.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., praised Esty’s commitment to “highly significant” causes such as gun safety, but said she made “profound mistakes.” And U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said in a statement that he had spoken to Esty “at length” over the past several days, and that he supported her decision not to seek re-election.
“Elizabeth knows she handled the dismissal of her former Chief of Staff badly,” he wrote. “The decision she made today is the right one for her, and I look forward to working with her during the remainder of her term.”
Before Esty, who serves Connecticut’s 5th District, had announced that she would not be running for re-election this year, she was facing Manny Santos, a Republican and the former mayor of Meriden, in the race.
Talia Soglin | email@example.com