U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty said Friday she is not resigning from her House seat in the wake of calls from her GOP opponent and state and national Republican leaders.
“I want to be clear that I am not resigning, that I have important work to do in Congress including building on the lessons of this horrible series of events,” Esty wrote in a media statement. “My agenda going forward will include relentlessly pursuing specific actions to foster a better working environment on Capitol Hill, building on the work that has already been done to ensure safe environments for staff, looking to the best practices that have been developed in the private sector, and taking the next steps to further strengthen workplace protections and provide employees with a safe platform to raise concerns.”
Esty’s remarks followed calls for her resignation for mishandling a former female staffer’s complaints of harassment, threats, and assault lodged against Esty’s former chief of staff.
Her GOP challenger, former Meriden Mayor Manny Santos, criticized Esty for what he called “hypocrisy.”
"There are two people that share the blame in this tragedy: Tony Baker, the abuser, and Elizabeth Esty, the boss,” Santos said. “More shocking is her decision to remain silent on the matter, even recommending Baker for another job, possibly subjecting others to similar abuse."
Media outlets reported Thursday that Baker, Esty’s chief of staff from 2014 to 2016, left threatening cell phone messages in May 2016 for a former employee and had punched her in the back at Esty’s Washington D.C. office.
Esty said she demanded Baker receive counseling and conducted an internal review of her office practices, later learning "the threat of violence was not an isolated incident" but a pattern of behavior by Baker affecting many of her female staffers.
A spokesman for Esty, D-5th, said Thursday the congresswoman was advised by the Office of House Employment Counsel to enter into a non-disclosure agreement with Baker as part of a settlement agreement, which included him being paid about $5,000 in severance. Baker remained in his job during the settlement talks, leaving in August 2016.
Santos withheld calling for her resignation until Friday afternoon, when he learned about a February press about Esty’s co-sponsorship of a bill to strengthen sexual harassment protections in Congress.
“As a young intern and an attorney, I saw and experienced my fair share of harassment in the workplace. The culture in Washington was bad then and still needs to change,” Esty said in the release. “No one, whether a staffer, an intern, a fellow, or a member, working in public service should have to feel afraid or intimidated to show up to work. And I am firmly committed to ensuring that my staff and I maintain an office atmosphere free of harassment.”
“After that statement there are no other words but that Elizabeth Esty is a complete hypocrite,” he said. “At this point, the proper thing for her to do is resign. This is the same culture she tolerated and she attempted to hide.”
Santos was also incredulous that the $5,000 severance paid to Baker was taxpayer money. Esty repaid the government Thursday, according to her spokesman.
Esty, who canceled an appearance with veterans in Watertown on Friday, issued a public statement Thursday to respond to the news reports.
"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," Esty wrote. "I've asked myself over and over again, 'How did I not see this? How could I have let down so many people?'"
Esty, known in Congress for advocating women's rights issues, said she has since hired new senior staff and instituted mandatory harassment training. She has also implemented a no dating policy for staff.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat, said he had been in contact with Esty.
"This clearly wasn't handled the way it should have been,” Murphy said. “Nobody working in a congressional office or any other setting should feel afraid to come to work. Protecting victims of workplace harassment needs to come first, and the rules of Congress need to change to ensure that happens."
Democrat Gov. Dannel P. Malloy echoed Murphy.
"Congresswoman Esty said that she should have handled this situation differently and I agree,” Malloy said in a statement. “There is absolutely no place for sexual harassment or abusive behavior in the workplace...”
Malloy commended the victim, identified in media reports as Anna Kain, for having the courage to come forward. U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st, also backed Esty.
“Clearly Congresswoman Esty understands that she should have handled this better,” Larson said in a statement. “All women deserve a safe and secure work environment. No one should ever feel unsafe in their workplace. We need to ensure that in Congress and in every workplace there are proper procedures in place so if an incident of abuse or harassment does occur, the victim is put first."
J.R. Romano, state GOP chairman, was among the first to call for Esty to step down in a tweet at 7 p.m. Thursday, saying Esty “has shown a lack of integrity by using $5,000 hush pay off to Tony Baker who physically abused female staff while recommending him a new job."
State Democratic leaders criticized Republicans for trying to score political points.
“J.R. Romano is ignoring all of his and his party’s past transgressions to score political points off of a tragic situation,” Christina Polizzi, spokesperson for Connecticut Democrats, said in an e-mail. “Congresswoman Esty said it best herself, she knows firsthand that we need stronger workplace protections and what she did was not enough. The Congresswoman is a strong advocate for women. As she has said — she wishes she had done things differently.”
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal had harsher criticism for Esty.
“I’m deeply disappointed,” Blumenthal said at an event Friday. “I’m just learning the facts. She should talk to her constituents. I need to learn more and so do her constituents. Clearly and unquestionably there should be no tolerance for harassment and assault in any workplace at any time.”
In a later Tweet, Romano challenged Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, to comment. Linehan, who has talked publicly about her experience with sexual assault in the workplace, issued a statement.
“I was deeply disappointed and disheartened to learn of the harassment within Congresswomen Esty's office, and the lack of decisive action to remove the offender from his position,” Linehan wrote on her Facebook page Friday.
“I reached out to Rep. Esty as I felt it was vital she hear firsthand from a survivor of workplace harassment,” Linehan said. “She listened to me intently, not only as a survivor, but also as a state lawmaker and a constituent.”