Representative Elizabeth Esty’s blueprint for her first term in Congress changed as soon as Adam Lanza rampaged through Sandy Hook Elementary School. Elected five weeks earlier and not yet sworn in, she was suddenly thrust into a calamity that convulsed the nation.
Esty was already familiar with how outside events—shocking crimes in particular—could change a political career in unforeseen ways. As a freshman in the Connecticut Legislature in 2009, she voted to abolish the state’s death penalty. But as her first term unfolded, so did the trial of a man accused and then convicted of a brutal home invasion in her hometown of Cheshire. A woman and her young daughters were raped and murdered; they were apparently chosen at random by two career criminals.
The crime made international news and gripped the state, and Esty’s vote became an issue in her re-election campaign. M. Jodi Rell, the Republican governor at the time, vetoed the Legislature’s anti-capital-punishment bill and cited the Cheshire murders as the reason. A death-penalty verdict was handed down the same week as the election, and Esty lost her seat by two points.
But all of that was far from Esty’s mind on the morning of December 14, 2012, as she sat in a classroom at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Freshly elected to represent Connecticut’s Fifth Congressional District on a platform of bread-and-butter issues, Esty and some forty other incoming members of the House were receiving a training session on using social media.
Around 10 am, a Harvard staffer tapped her on the shoulder and said there’d been a school shooting in Connecticut. There was some initial confusion about exactly what had happened, and the staffer kept saying “Newton,” like the city outside of Boston, so Esty wasn’t sure even that the incident had occurred in her state. But it soon became clear that there had been an appalling number of deaths, and that it had happened in Newtown—right in her district.
“At that point, I just left the room, went to my hotel room, threw my things in a suitcase and drove straight to Newtown,” Esty told me over lunch there late this summer. The interview had been undramatic and upbeat to this point, but the tears began to well in her eyes. She described calling her mother and her minister on the two-hour drive home.
Esty had no staff and no experience representing the area in Congress, but she went directly to the command center at the firehouse adjacent to the school. Inside, some of her soon-to-be constituents were facing an agonizing wait as authorities methodically identified the twenty students and six teachers who had been killed by a Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle. “Families were being notified one by one,” Esty said. “And I could hear them screaming in the other room.”