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EMILY’s List Creates a Firestorm in a Connecticut House Race | The Nation

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George Zornick

George Zornick

Action and dysfunction in the Beltway swamp. E-mail tips to george@thenation.com

EMILY’s List Creates a Firestorm in a Connecticut House Race

EMILY’s List, the political action committee that aims to elect pro-choice, Democratic female candidates to office, has noble goals—but has occasionally raised progressive anger for supporting moderate Democrats over far more liberal candidates. Such was the case in 2008 in Tennessee, where EMILY’s List candidate Nikki Tinker, a Blue Dog and former aide to Harold Ford Jr., ran a vaguely anti-Semitic primary campaign against Representative Steve Cohen, who had a very strong record on women’s rights. (EMILY’s List distanced itself from the attacks immediately, but did not withdraw the endorsement).

A similar fracture on the left is opening up again this summer in Connecticut, where EMILY’s List has endorsed Elizabeth Esty in the Fifth District primary against Chris Donovan—and is using some well-worn conservative attack lines against him.

Donovan is the speaker of the Connecticut House with a strong progressive record, and at times battled with Esty, a former state House member herself. For example, Donovan helped lead the fight for Connecticut’s first-in-the-nation paid sick leave law, while Esty voted against it.

This week, Donovan’s campaign put out an ad where he tells the camera, “These days, some people are afraid to be called liberal or progressive,” but “I’m proud of my record”:

There’s a lot to attack Donovan over —it would be an understatement to say he’s a flawed candidate, as the FBI has now arrested six people for making “conduit contributions” to Donovan’s campaigns, meaning they hid donations with third parties, and where the real purpose was influencing legislation. Donovan has not been charged, but is listed as “Public Official Number 1” in the indictments. Two people quoted in the indictments suggest Donovan was briefed on the scheme.

But the left blogosphere is up in arms over a July 17 EMILY’s List press release, about an as-yet unreleased mailer, which levels a different sort of charge against him—one that uses distinctly right-wing framing. It accuses him of being a “tax-raiser” and heralds Esty’s resume of “responsible budgeting.”

In 2009, Esty and Donovan were locked in a budget battle—Donovan’s version of the state budget didn’t touch state Medicaid funding nor education funding, and asked for a millionaire’s tax. Esty’s budget proposal, meanwhile, cut Medicaid and Husky health funding by $146 million, cut higher education by $54 million and raises taxes on millionaires at a lower rate than Donovan--her proposal would collect $736.7 million less over two years from top earners.* 

This is the sort of “responsible budgeting” normally heralded by Republicans in Washington—deep cuts to the safety net and education with little or no buy-in from the wealthy. With newly elected members of the House almost sure to take on massive votes on the Bush tax cuts and budget sequestration as soon as they arrive in Washington, it’s truly crucial what Democrats headed there believe.

Jen Bluestein, an EMILY’s List spokesperson, told me that “Our description of Elizabeth Esty as committed to responsible budgeting is a description of her priorities in the past and in the future.” I asked if that was inclusive of the 2009 budget proposal, to which she responded, “Sure.”

Bluestein added, however, that the 2011 budget heralded by Donovan wasn’t particularly progressive. “The budget raised taxes on middle-class families at a higher rate than it did millionaires. The budget raised the sales tax, which as you know is a regressive tax. The budget slashed a property tax credit that was only available to folks with income under a certain amount,” she said. “So these are all ways in which, factually speaking, the budget was tough on the middle class.”

That’s true, though with some important caveats. Bloomberg characterized the 2011 budget’s tax provisions as making the state’s income tax “more progressive.” That’s because it created six tax brackets instead of three. Bluestein is correct, however, that the rates for $50,000-and-up earners increased to 5.5 from 5 percent, while the rates on millionaires saw a smaller increase, going from 6.5 to 6.7. Sales taxes are indeed regressive, though it should be noted that the budget levied additional sales taxes on $1,000-plus “luxury” items like clothes and boats.

In the end, there isn’t a ton of debate that Donovan is a much more progressive candidate than Esty, which is what’s irritating many liberals about the EMILY’s List endorsement. “I dearly want to see more women in elective office. But when there is a real progressive in the race, I would no more support a ConservaDem like Esty than I would support Michele Bachman,” wrote Digby this week. “And there is a real progressive in the race—Chris Donovan—the candidate Emily’s List and Elizabeth Esty are trying to smear with the most hackneyed of all Republican inspired attacks.”

EMILY’s List officials, meanwhile, stressed to me what the group’s priorities are at the end of the day. “The mission of EMILY’s list is to elect pro-choice Democratic women,” said spokesperson Jess McIntosh. “That is what we do.”

*An earlier version of this story said Esty's proposal had "no millionaire's tax." It does raise rates on top earners, just at a lower rate than Donovan.

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