Connecticut Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Esty is fighting like hell to save her political career. But she may be fighting a losing battle.
At issue are revelations published last week in The Washington Post and Connecticut papers that Esty kept her chief of staff on the payroll for three months after another former aide made allegations of harassment against him. Esty dismissed the man in question -- Tony Baker -- after an internal investigation proved the claims were accurate. Even after that, however, she wrote a reference letter for Baker.
Esty has apologized for her poor judgment. And on Monday, she took two steps clearly aimed at stopping the political bleeding:
- She issued a "Dear Colleague" letter in which she asked rhetorically: "How did I not know? How did I not see it? What I do know is that wasn't an isolated incidence on Capitol Hill and that we can and must do better to ensure a safe environment for our employees."
- She called on the House Ethics Committee to expedite its investigation into the matter. "Although we worked with the House Employment Counsel to investigate and ultimately dismiss this employee for his outrageous behavior with a former staffer, I believe it is important for the House Ethics Committee to conduct its own inquiry into this matter," wrote Esty.
The message in both of those actions is clear: I want to get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible because I think I will be vindicated by what is found. Sure, I could have done things better (quicker?) but it was a very tough situation and I did what I thought was best at the time. I've got nothing to hide!
These moves come after a very forceful Esty statement in the immediate aftermath of the reports in which she flatly rejected the idea of resigning. "For those who have asked, I want to be clear that I am not resigning," Esty said in the statement to CNN last week. "I have important work to do in Congress including building on the lessons of this horrible series of events."
That statement didn't stop people from calling for her resignation. At first, it was just Republicans. But over the weekend, a series of prominent state Democrats -- including former Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz and state Senate President Martin Looney -- said Esty should resign.
And then there was this on Monday from Mark Davis, the chief political correspondent for local ABC affiliate WTNH: "Sources say Esty calling Democratic Town Committee Chairs in 5th district seeking support and it's not going well."
Esty got something of a respite from all of that bad news on Monday afternoon when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, stopped short of calling for her resignation. "As Congresswoman Esty has acknowledged, her actions did not protect Ms. (Anna) Kain and should have," said Pelosi. "Congresswoman Esty has now appropriately requested an expedited review by the Ethics Committee."
Conversations with plugged-in operatives in the Nutmeg State, however, suggest that even Pelosi's kind of, sort of endorsement of Esty may not be enough to save her.
"She's not a person that has a lot of people in the state looking to save her from this embarrassment, which makes surviving much harder," said one Democratic consultant who works in the state and was granted anonymity to candidly assess Esty's political future. "I don't know if she makes it but it doesn't feel good and I have no idea why they didn't just fire the guy."
In similar situations in the past, the key in determining whether a member of Congress can weather a scandal is what I'll call the "abandonment factor": Do influencers within your own party call on you to resign or not?
If they do, it's almost always curtains. If the whole thing turns into more of a partisan fight, you usually make it.
Pelosi threw Esty a lifeline on Monday. But it wasn't much of one. And it's not clear whether Pelosi's unwillingness to call on Esty to resign can overcome the clear dissatisfaction toward Esty within some elements of the state party.
At the moment, it doesn't look great for her.