Rep. Elizabeth Esty pressured to resign following reports of sexual harassment in her office
When the #MeToo movement first rocked Capitol Hill, high-profile lawmakers like Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers were among the first to resign following the surfacing of allegations against them. Now, a female member of Congress is being urged to follow in their footsteps.
Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) is facing growing calls to resign over the role she played in a sexual harassment scandal involving her former chief of staff Tony Baker and former staffer Anna Kain. According to reports first published by the Washington Post and Connecticut Post, Esty reportedly kept Baker on her staff for three months after learning about a May 2016 episode in which Baker left a threatening voicemail for Kain that inspired her to obtain a restraining order.
Esty has said that she will not resign, saying in a statement to CNN: “For those who have asked, I want to be clear that I am not resigning. I have important work to do in Congress including building on the lessons of this horrible series of events.”
The congresswoman’s Connecticut colleagues on both sides of the aisle, however, have suggested that Esty should step down.
“Congresswoman Esty has long been a conscientious leader in the fight against harassment and abuse in the workplace,” state Senate President Pro Tempore Martin M. Looney, a Democrat from New Haven, said in a statement. “However ... if the facts of this matter involving former staff of the congresswoman’s office are as they are alleged to be in recent news articles, then Congresswoman Esty should do the right thing and resign.”
Looney’s statement followed a previous statement by Democratic state Sen. Mae Flexer, who said Esty’s “failure to do the right thing here hurt us all, especially as more and more women are courageously coming forward.
“It’s time for Rep. Esty to step aside,” Flexer said.
According to the Connecticut Mirror, others in the Connecticut state legislature urging Esty’s resignation include state Reps. Diana Urban and Kelly Juleson-Scopino and state Sens. Paul Doyle and Cathy Osten.
“[Esty’s] actions put more subordinate employees in peril, and undermined public trust in our government,” former Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz wrote in a statement. “I know Congresswoman Esty to be a woman of action rather than words, and in this case, words are not enough. I believe that under the circumstances, Congresswoman Esty must step down from her position.”
The congresswoman’s Republican opponents have also condemned her behavior. According to the Connecticut Mirror, the state Republican Party, the National Republican Congressional Committee and Esty’s Republican opponent Manny Santos have been among those calling for her to resign.
“All I have heard from Democrat women this year is that they are the party to protect women,” state House GOP Leader Themis Klarides told the Hartford Courant. “This is clearly an example of someone who is full of excuses and failed to protect a woman when she needed help. Every step along the way there was an excuse.”
Esty’s Connecticut colleagues in Washington, however, have not been quite as forthcoming in calling for her resignation. The Associated Press noted that Connecticut lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate have only expressed “mild criticism” and acknowledged that Esty has recognized that she made a mistake in how she handled the situation.
“I’m deeply disappointed,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal told the AP, adding that matter of Esty’s resignation was “really a decision for her constituents.”
According to the Washington and Connecticut Post reports, upon learning of the May 5 incident, Esty confronted Baker and commissioned an investigation into his behavior. Baker’s voicemail was reportedly the culmination of a long pattern of abuse toward Kain, who the Washington Post reports was “punched, berated and sexually harassed” by Baker throughout 2014, as well as toward other female staffers.
Baker left his position on Aug. 12 following the investigation’s end, the Washington Post noted. Rather than simply dismissing Baker, however, Esty paid Baker a $5,000 severance fee — which she intends to repay to the U.S. Treasury — and wrote him a favorable job recommendation. Esty also signed a legal agreement preventing her from discussing the circumstances of Baker’s termination or disparaging him. The former chief of staff then went on to work for Sandy Hook Promise, a gun control group formed in response to the 2012 Connecticut mass shooting, which took place in Esty’s district.
Prior to the revelations about her office’s sexual harassment scandal, Esty had been known for her advocacy on women’s issues and the #MeToo movement. The Connecticut Post noted that Esty has helped to enact laws promoting female entrepreneurship and curbing sex trafficking, among other women-focused issues, and Esty was among those to call for Conyers’ resignation.
“For too long, the culture in Washington has accepted entirely unacceptable behavior,” Esty said in a November statement in response to anti-harassment training becoming mandatory for House offices, as quoted by the Washington Post. “That needs to change — period.”
Though she remains unwilling to resign, Esty has apologized for her handling of the situation, writing in a statement that she was “sorry that I failed to protect [Kain] and provide her with the safe and respectful work environment that every employee deserves.”
“I am sorry that I hurt her, her friends, family, and coworkers and many of my present and former staffers,” Esty wrote. “To this survivor, and to anyone else on my team who was hurt by my failure to see what was going on in my office, I am so sorry.”
“I know firsthand that we need stronger workplace protections, and to provide employees with a platform to raise concerns, But that’s not enough. Those concerns must be listened to. And people in power must take action,” Esty continued.
“Now that I know, I must do better. We all must do better.”