The 75 or so campaign staffers and media types who crowded into the Oliver Wolcott Library community room could be forgiven for falling asleep for the first 45 minutes of the hour-long debate late Saturday morning. After all, the League of Women Voters has a habit of imposing strict ground rules that inhibit interaction between the candidates. Plus, the strange starting time of 11:30 a.m. caused a lot of stomachs to growl with hunger.
As was the case with the last Dems’ debate I covered, Elizabeth Esty, Dan Roberti and Chris Donovan differed little on the issues. So voters were left to examine their personalities and their commitment to fighting for the issues the party faithful care about. Sometimes in such a setting, the candidates even grumble about each other’s ethics and integrity, which is what Esty did late in the debate. [see video below, FF to 3:30]
Now if anyone was going to be the target of an attack on his ethics, you would think it would be the embattled Donovan, the sitting speaker of the state House of Representatives whose congressional campaign is under investigation by the FBI and whose campaign director and finance director were recently arrested and charged by the feds as part of a money laundering investigation.
But no, Esty got around the LWV’s aversion to candidate interaction and turned a mortgage crisis question from the moderator into an opportunity to attack Roberti, the son of prominent Washington lobbyist Vin Roberti, for being a co-owner of his father’s firm — until recently, that is, when the younger Roberti sold his shares.
Here are the quotes from Christine Stuart’s excellent and timely piece on the debate:
“This is where I think I have to point something out,” Esty said. “Mr. Roberti is the co-owner of a lobbying firm. Citibank, Citicorp is one of its clients. Citibank is one of the banks that is responsible for the mess that we’re in with this mortgage crisis.”
“It should scare every voter in the 5th District,” Esty said. “That a powerful D.C. lobbyist is trying to install a personal congressman in our part of Connecticut.”
Since Roberti had already answered the original question, he could not respond to the attack under the ground rules established by the controversy-averse LWV. So he was forced to use precious time in his two-minute closing statement to rebut Esty.
Roberti insisted he’s not a lobbyist and added, “Shame on you for making a lie like that.” Perhaps. But if insist you aren’t a lobbyist when you owned half a lobbying firm, isn’t that a distinction without a difference? After all, you had, until recently, a very strong financial interest in the prominent lobbying firm owned by your lobbyist father. Sorry, but I think that makes you a lobbyist — or I suppose, a lobbyist until recently.
Afterwards, reporters swarmed around Esty and Roberti looking for clarification. See the video below shot by Christine. There are responses from both candidates to questions from Christine and Mark Pazniokas of the CT Mirror:
Esty is one smart candidate. Unlike Roberti, she has not called on Donovan to get out of the race. She has patiently waited for the media to continue to report on his troubles, while turning her sights on Roberti. Why attack Roberti and not Donovan? Because Donovan is still strong enough that if Esty and Roberti split the anti-Donovan vote, the embattled speaker just might eek out a victory in the primary. But if Esty can drive up the young Roberti’s negatives by sowing doubt about where he’s getting his money, she could beat beat Donovan by 5-10 points.
As reporters peppered Esty and Roberti with questions after the debate adjourned, Donovan was no doubt relieved not be the center of attention. Donovan spokesman Gabe Rosenberg told reporters his boss, who has been avoiding the press since his campaign scandal broke, left because no one wanted to interview him.
“He was waiting around like a lost puppy,” the burly Rosenberg insisted.