Politics

Rep. Elizabeth Esty Won’t Seek Re-Election in Wake of Abusive Staffer Disclosures

Connecticut Democrat’s decision opens up potentially competitive seat

Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., says she will retire at the end of this term amid reports of her questionable handling of a former chief of staff who battered, threatened, and sexually harassed a subordinate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Embattled Rep. Elizabeth Esty has decided not to run for re-election, she announced via Facebook on Monday.

The Connecticut Democrat faced bipartisan criticism over the weekend after multiple news outlets reported her questionable handling of a former top aide who battered, threatened, and sexually harassed a female employee in her office.

“I have determined that it is in the best interest of my constituents and my family to end my time in Congress at the end of this year and not seek re-election,” she said on Facebook.

“Too many women have been harmed by harassment in the workplace. In the terrible situation in my office, I could have and should have done better,” she wrote.

“To the survivor, I want to express my strongest apology for letting you down. In Congress, and workplaces across the country, we need stronger workplace protections and to provide employees with a platform to raise concerns, address problems, and work to reduce and eliminate such occurrences, in the first place. In my final months in Congress, I will use my power to fight for action and meaningful change,” she added.

After narrowly winning her 5th District seat in 2012, Esty has since been re-elected comfortably, winning a third term in 2016 by 16 points. 

But her decision to retire could open up a potentially competitive district, which Hillary Clinton carried by 4 points in 2016. Esty’s seat was already on the National Republican Congressional Committee list of targets and the group could redouble its efforts with no incumbent in the race.

Esty was also part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline program, which supports vulnerable incumbents. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Democratic

Watch: Democrats Have At Least 20 House Takeover Opportunities in These 4 States

The NRCC had already called for Esty to resign last week.

"Elizabeth Esty’s coverup over her staffer’s domestic violence scandal was as reprehensible as it was morally bankrupt," NRCC communications director Matt Gorman said in a statement Monday.

"The NRCC is ready to win this competitive seat this fall. Democrats won’t be able to distance themselves from the stain Esty left on their brand," he said.

An aide to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she spoke with Esty on Monday by phone. “The Leader was informed of the Congresswoman’s decision before the announcement,” the aide said in an email.

According to reports that broke Thursday, it took Esty three months in 2016 to fire her former chief of staff, Tony Baker, after she first learned he had repeatedly harassed and even left a death threat over voice mail to one of his subordinates in Esty’s office, Anna Kain. Bake and Kain had previously dated.

“Ms. Kain is to be commended for her courage in coming forward and telling her story,” Pelosi said in a statement Monday before Esty announced her retirement. “As Congresswoman Esty has acknowledged, her actions did not protect Ms. Kain and should have.”

A week after learning of the allegations against Baker in May 2016, Esty launched an internal review.

That process revealed that the “threat of violence was not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern of behavior that victimized many of the women” on her staff, she said.

But instead of firing Baker, Esty kept him on her payroll for three months; paid him $5,000 in severance from her congressional fund; signed a nondisclosure agreement about the reasons Baker was no longer with her office; and even co-authored a recommendation letter touting Baker’s “considerable skills” that he used to land a job as Ohio director of the gun control group Sandy Hook Promise.

Esty has personally reimbursed the U.S. Treasury for the $5,000 in severance, the Connecticut Post reported.

She was a co-sponsor of a House-passed bill that would overhaul the process of reporting sexual harassment allegations and require lawmakers to pay settlements out of their own funds.

[Roll Call’s 2018 Election Guide]

Connecticut Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy said he had spoken at length with Esty over the past few days and supported her decision to not seek re-election. 

“No one should ever be harassed, assaulted or intimidated at work. Elizabeth knows she handled the dismissal of her former Chief of Staff badly. 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,” Murphy said in a statement Monday.

Earlier Monday, Esty had requested the House Ethics Committee conduct an inquiry into whether she “violated any law, rule, regulation or other standard of conduct applicable to a Member of the House.”

“It certainly was far from a perfect process — and I would appreciate their advice, counsel, and review,” she said in a letter. “I have apologized for my mistakes in the handling of this matter. I feel terribly for the victim of abuse. In seeking this inquiry, I want to clarify whether there was any wrongdoing on my part.”

Bridget Bowman and Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.

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