In 2012 Elizabeth Esty, a Yale-trained lawyer and former member of the Connecticut general assembly, won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. On Capitol Hill, Esty worked with Republicans to open science education opportunities for girls and young women and passed a law to help female scientists bring their discoveries to market. She also worked on energy production issues back home and helped lead the efforts among House Democrats to pass gun control.1
Elizabeth Esty was born Elizabeth Henderson on August 25, 1959, in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb west of Chicago, to Thomas and Mitzi Henderson. Her father was a construction engineer, and her mother was active in religious and charitable organizations.2 Her father’s job caused the family to move frequently to different construction projects across the nation. In 1977 Esty graduated from Winona High School in Winona, Minnesota, and graduated from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1981. She then studied at the Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris, France. Esty attended Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut, earned her law degree in 1985, and clerked for a U.S. District Judge in Massachusetts. She married Daniel Esty, a fellow law school student, in October 1984.3 He later became the head of Connecticut’s energy and environment programs. They have a daughter and two sons.4
As young professionals, the Estys settled in Washington, DC. She joined a private law firm and worked on cases defending abortion rights.5 In 1990 she left the practice to concentrate on health care policy and taught as an adjunct at American University. In 1994, when her husband founded an environmental law and policy program at Yale University, the Estys relocated to Connecticut. She became a senior research scholar at Yale Law School.6
Esty’s political career began in Connecticut a decade later.7 She won election to the Cheshire town council in 2004, and served until she won a seat in the state assembly four years later. In the state house, Esty supported worker rights and same-sex marriage, and voted to abolish capital punishment. The death penalty vote happened shortly after two convicts had killed three people in her hometown, and it quickly became a campaign issue. In 2010 Esty lost re-election to the state house to a candidate who supported the death penalty.8
When Representative Christopher Murphy announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in 2012, Esty joined the race to fill his seat. After winning the primary she faced state senator Andrew Roraback, a Republican who supported abortion rights and same-sex marriage, in the general election. On Election Day, Esty edged out Roraback with 48 percent of the vote. Esty went on to win re-election in 2014 and 2016.9
In December 2012, Esty was attending an orientation program for new Members of Congress at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government when news broke that a shooting had occurred in her district. A gunman had entered the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and killed 20 students—all between the ages of 6 and 7—and six adults before killing himself.10 The unspeakable tragedy had a profound effect on Esty’s agenda, and she became a leading gun control advocate on Capitol Hill.11 It was “a role I wish I didn’t have but I do,” she said. “And however long it takes on that issue, I will be fighting for that, whether I’m in Congress or not, because I feel strongly about it.”12
In the House, Esty was assigned to two committees—Science, Space, and Technology; and Transportation and Infrastructure. And in her third term, Esty also picked up a seat on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.13
Early in her career, Esty was named one of 12 vice-chairs of the House Democratic Caucus’s Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. But with one stalemate after another during her first term, Congress had not acted on a new gun control measure. Two years later all Esty could say was, “We should be ashamed.”14 In late summer 2016 House Democrats held a sit-in on the House Floor to protest the lack of debate on gun control. Esty participated in the sit-in, saying, “We have no choice but to take over the floor.”15
The sit-in notwithstanding, Esty served in the House minority for her whole career and described her legislative approach as both practical and bipartisan. “I first go to a Republican because that’s the only way things are going to get done here,” she said. Part of that outreach involved waking up at 5:00 a.m. every Thursday to do a 30-minute spin workout “followed by 45 minutes of yoga” with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and a few others. “I am the only woman who does it,” she said. “There are only two Democrats who do it.”16
The first bill Esty introduced in the House, the Collinsville Renewable Energy Promotion Act, became law in June 2014. The bill came during a long debate about what to do with two hydroelectric dams on the Farmington River. The dams had been built to power an ax factory along the river, but the factory shut down in 1966, and the dams sat unused for the next 50 years. The Federal Energy Regulatory Committee gave the go ahead to resume energy production at the dams in 2001, but after a series of delays the construction never started and the regulatory commission shut the project down in 2007. Esty’s bill transferred the operating licenses to the town of Canton, Connecticut, and extended the construction deadline.17 “This is a template for producing local power,” Esty said at an event celebrating the law’s success.18
In early 2017, from her seat on the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Esty helped push through the House two bills she wrote with Virginia Representative Barbara Comstock. In March 2016, during the 114th Congress (2015–2017), Esty introduced the Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act, which amended the Science and Engineering Opportunities Act to help women scientists to bring their research to market. It also allowed the National Science Foundation to recruit women for its programs in entrepreneurship. It passed the House, but never cleared the Senate. A year later, she reintroduced the bill, and it passed unanimously. A second, similar bill authored by Esty and Comstock became law on the same day. The Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers Women Act opened up funding for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to create science and technology education programs for girls in elementary and high schools.19
In late March 2018 reports emerged that Esty’s chief of staff had been accused of sexual harassment and had made threatening phone calls to a former employee.20 Esty had waited three months to fire her chief and included a severance package, nondisclosure agreements, and a letter of recommendation her former chief could only use outside of Washington. The news came amid the national #MeToo Movement in which women shared their experiences with sexual assault and sexual harassment. Esty, who had been a prominent supporter of the movement, announced in early April that she would not stand for re-election. “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,” Esty’s statement read. “In the terrible situation in my office, I could have and should have done better.”21
In December 2018, the House Ethics Committee issued its report on the situation in Esty’s office and concluded that while Esty had “[fallen] short of ideal practices,” she had not violated House Rules. No further action was deemed warranted.22
1“Elizabeth Esty, A Workhorse,” 27 October 2016, Hartford Courant: A11.
2“Elizabeth Henderson Bride at Harvard,” 21 October 1984, New York Times: I66; Almanac of American Politics, 2016 (Arlington, VA: Columbia Books & Information Services, 2015): 381–384.
3Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 383.
4“Elizabeth Henderson Bride at Harvard”; Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 383; “Biography,” official website of Representative Elizabeth Esty, 21 December 2018, https://web.archive.org/web/20181221215909/https://esty.house.gov/about/full-biography.
6Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 383.
7Ginny Brzezinski, “How Rep. Elizabeth Esty Went from Career Break … to Congress,” 31 January 2018, NBC News, https://www.nbcnews.com/know-your-value/feature/how-rep-elizabeth-esty-went-career-break-congress-ncna843521.
8Christopher Keating, “Esty: ‘A Problem Solver,’” 14 October 2012, Hartford Courant: A1; Almanac of American Politics 2016: 381–384; “Biography.”
9Keating, “Esty: ‘A Problem Solver’”; Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 381– 384; Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”
10Kevin Robillard and Kevin Cirilli, “Pols Offer Prayers,” 14 December 2012, Politico, https://www.politico.com/story/2012/12/connecticut-school-shooting-lawmakers-offer-prayers-085096.
11Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 383.
12Kelly Dittmar, et al., A Seat at the Table: Congresswomen’s Perspectives on Why Their Presence Matters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018): 31. See also Ana Radelat, “Esty Says Farewell to Congress in Final Speech,” 11 December 2018, CT Mirror, https://ctmirror.org/2018/12/11/esty-gives-farewell-congress-speech/.
13Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 381–384; Radelat, “Esty Says Farewell to Congress in Final Speech.”
14Quotation from Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 384.
15Alex Gangitano and Lindsey McPherson, “Key Moments in the House Sit-In on Guns,” 22 June 2016, Roll Call, https://www.rollcall.com/2016/06/22/key-moments-in-the-house-sit-in-on-guns/.
16Dittmar et al., A Seat at the Table: 135–136.
17House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Collinsville Renewable Energy Promotion Act, 113th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 7 (2013): 2.
18Ken Byron, “Federal and State Officials Praise Canton Hydropower Project,” 2 July 2014, Hartford Courant, https://www.courant.com/community/canton/hc-xpm-2014-07-02-hc-canton-hydropower-0702-20140701-story.html.
19Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act, PL 115-6, 131 Stat. 11 (2017); Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act, PL 115-7, 131 Stat. 13 (2017); Russell Blair, “Rep. Esty Gets Two Bills Signed by Trump,” 28 February 2017, Hartford Courant, https://www.courant.com/politics/capitol-watch/hc-esty-bills-trump-signed-story.html; “President Trump Signs Into Law Two Esty-Authored Bills to Promote Women in Science,” official website of Representative Elizabeth Esty, press release, 28 February 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20170325222131/https://esty.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/president-trump-signs-law-two-esty-authored-bills-promote-women-science.
20House Committee on Ethics, In the Matter of Allegations Relating to Representative Elizabeth Esty, 115th Cong., 2nd sess., H. Rept. 1093 (2018).
21Liam Stack, “Elizabeth Esty, Saying She Mishandled Abuse Claim, Won’t Defend House Seat,” 2 April 2018, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/02/us/politics/elizabeth-esty-wont-run-reelection.html; Elise Viebeck, “Elizabeth Esty Won’t Seek Reelection Amid Scrutiny of Chief of Staff’s Departure,” 2 April 2018, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/powerpost/esty-calls-for-ethics-review-of-her-handling-of-baker-allegations-dismissal/2018/04/02/7ed2cc14-3685-11e8-9c0a-85d477d9a226_story.html.
22In the Matter of Allegations Relating to Representative Elizabeth Esty: 31.