Elizabeth Esty is an hour late for her Sidley alumni interview. We give her a pass given the excuse: The joint session of congress she attended, featuring an address by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had run longer than expected.
As U.S. Representative of Connecticut’s 5th congressional district, Esty serves a constituency that includes a growing South Asian population. So she was particularly intrigued by what Prime Minister Modi said about America’s strategic partnerships with India in the areas of renewable energy, nuclear cooperation, terrorism and research and technology. Equally impactful, said Esty, is that “He talked about how important the American Constitution has been to India’s independence and its maturity as a country.”
Esty knows something of the rules of laws embodied in that document, having clerked on the Supreme Court and been a lawyer in Sidley’s appellate practice from 1986 to 1990. Making the move to Sidley proved popular among her cohorts. Many of Esty’s colleagues at the firm, including Mark Haddad, Peter Keisler and alumnus Gene Schaerr, were initially her classmates at Yale Law School.
Though she ultimately opted to leave Sidley to focus on raising a family, Esty had already worked on a variety of seminal briefs at the firm, including for the landmark Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals. She is also particularly proud of having had a hand in helping formulate the American Medical Association’s AIDS policy, including developing protocols for doctors and dentists to treat people who are HIV positive.
“It was important and rewarding to help drive that agenda for the country,” she said, noting that at the time, not everyone in the medical profession, much less the public at large, understood much about how to care for people with AIDS.
It therefore seems a logical progression that Esty has since embraced roles in public service, beginning with being elected very locally, to the Cheshire, Connecticut town council, in 2005. While some might view the job as administrative, Esty said she relished the nitty-gritty involving balancing the town’s budget and providing tax relief to seniors. “I thought I was doing a good job and I got things done,” she said simply. Others agreed. She was re-elected in 2007 before launching a run for state representative. Esty won and served in that role from 2009 to 2011 before being elected to her current leadership position in the U.S. house.
Yet, the seeds for advocacy and fairness appear to have been sown much earlier in Esty’s life. Coming “from a long line of feisty women who have been involved and have taken up action,” she recalls giving a gay rights speech back in 1974 while in high school. Having a brother she intuitively knew was gay but who did not come out until a few years later, the issue was near and dear.
So how did that early stumping go?
“Not very well in Winona, Minnesota,” Esty jokes of the conservative town in which she was raised.
That experience may inform her current success. Esty has four bills signed by the president proudly mounted in her office, including one promoting equity for fathers who are traumatized when their children don’t return from war. The law in its original form had assumed mothers were the ones who principally suffered. Esty recalls being moved after a man whose son was killed in Iraq came to her with the issue.
How do those important bills get passed? Esty reveals a secret setting for her bipartisan wheeling and dealing: the hallowed halls of the gym.
While she originally joined for cardiovascular health, the locale soon presented other tantalizing benefits. The sole woman in a certain “hardcore gym class,” Esty said she has worked on legislation with a number of the folks who work out at 6 a.m. In particular, she regularly sees Wisconsin's First District congressman and speaker of the House Paul Ryan there. “He works out right in front of me and likes to play air guitar,” she said.
Published October 2016
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