WASHINGTON -- As she begins her second term on Capitol Hill, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty is becoming known as a Hillary Clinton-style workhorse and, to a lesser extent, a lawmaker devoted to women's issues in the mold of her more liberal colleague, Rep. Rosa DeLauro.
As one of a record 84 women members of the House, Esty has a gender card to play if she chooses. To the extent she does, credit would go to DeLauro, whom Esty considers her friend and mentor. DeLauro, 71, of New Haven, is widely recognized in Congress as an unapologetic fighter for liberalism and women's rights whose fiery advocacy matches her taste in colorful fashions.
For Democratic women lawmakers, it's the best of times with 62 female Democrats in the House, fulfilling House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's goal of electing more women to office.
But for Democrats overall, it's the worst of times with fewer Democrats serving in the House than at any time since the 1940s.
Esty, who represents the 5th Congressional District, which includes Danbury and northwest Connecticut, is sticking to what she feels she does best: A mix of constituent service and legislation that serves workforce needs. They are not necessarily the kind of topics calculated to get an up-and-coming lawmaker on "Meet the Press."
But Esty also insists that women's issues are family issues, and that fighting for equal pay for women, for instance, puts more disposable income in families' pockets and benefits the entire economy.
Her approach to Congress parallels social work and "ministry," as she puts it, rather than bomb throwing and headline grabbing.
"The bottom line is we are all elected to serve and solve problems for the American people," Esty said. "We earn our right to do the job by serving people well, regardless of gender."
DeLauro, who represents the 3rd Congressional District, is starting her 13th term in Congress as an outspoken promoter of liberal causes and field marshal on Pelosi's House minority leadership team.
"Elizabeth has been a powerful voice, advocating for her constituents since the moment she was elected," DeLauro said in an emailed statement. "I am proud to serve with her."
Nuts and bolts
Esty, by contrast, spent her first term concentrating on legislation like the Supporting Teachers and Enhancing Manufacturing Jobs Act, which is aimed at linking manufacturing job opportunities to technical education. Although it did not make it to the president's desk, her bill was rolled into larger legislation that passed the House last July.
She has pledged to fight anew for STEM as part of what she termed her "innovation agenda."
Just before the new year, her office issued a year-end report listing Esty's first-term achievements, including 18 bills introduced, two signed into law and $3 million in savings she won for constituents in disputes over taxes, Social Security, VA benefits, Medicare, and other federal programs.
She also helped win a $1.7 million federal grant for Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury to support manufacturing training.
In that regard, Esty follows the path of Hillary Clinton, who as senator from New York from 2001 to 2009 described herself as a "workhorse, not a showhorse." Of course, as former first lady, Clinton could concentrate on the nitty-gritty of New York issues without losing her starring role on the Democratic stage.
Esty has not glided through as effortlessly. Although she has been a strong supporter of the Affordable Care Act -- Obamacare -- Esty angered liberal groups such as Moveon.org by her decision to vote with Republicans to delay implementation of the health care law's individual mandate, which requires Americans to have health insurance or face a tax penalty. The measure ultimately failed.
DeLauro voted against the delay and is viewed by those same liberal groups as mostly a champion of their causes. "The difference in individual styles is due to the time they've been in office,'' said Kelly Dittmar, a Rutgers University political scientist and scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics who served as a fellow in DeLauro's office in 2011 and 2012. "It's important for Esty to develop her niche in policy areas while Rosa has established herself and has more freedom. She can take on additional issues and a wider agenda."
Esty and DeLauro have teamed up on national issues that strike close to home. Exhibit A: Esty's support for DeLauro's effort in the House to bar the Pentagon from purchasing Russian-made helicopters for Afghanistan's military. The move -- not entirely a coincidence -- could aid a competitor, Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. of Stratford.
For Esty, sisterhood is powerful in a quieter way. Early in her first term she befriended another freshman, Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind. The two are close in age and have kids of similar ages, and both are lawyers. Because their districts have similar concentrations of manufacturing and community colleges, they worked together on the STEM job legislation.
The two Esty bills that did become law were the PROMPT Act, which would speed up replacement of lost medals for military veterans, or provision of medals to veterans who never collected them in the first place; and the Collinsville Renewable Energy Production Act, which is helping Canton rehabilitate centuries-old industrial dams on the Farmington River to generate enough power for more than 1,500 homes.
But there were disappointments -- lots of them.
Esty advocated for a hike in the federal minimum wage, which didn't make it through. She was a co-author of the immigration reform bill that provided a path to citizenship. It passed the Senate but was not brought to a vote in the House.
The bitterest defeat? The failure of Congress to address gun violence by passing the bipartisan bill to expand gun-purchase background checks. The bill failed in the Senate in 2013 and was not brought up in the House. As the lawmaker representing Newtown, site of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting, Esty felt the sting more than most in Congress.
With the Senate now also in Republican hands, the likelihood of background checks being brought up again is slim. Yet Esty describes herself as an "eternal optimist" on the issue.
Win or lose, Esty has come a long way since 2005, when she began her political career on the Cheshire Town Council. Now she appears comfortable in her role as a member of Congress who happens to be female.
"I've found women to be effective problem solvers," she said.
"In my experience, women tend to get involved in politics later in life," after starting families and getting grounded in community activities.
Even though Esty and her husband, Yale law school professor Dan Esty, are empty nesters, the practical necessities of family life didn't cease with her election to Congress.
"I go home (to Cheshire) to do laundry and prepare meals,'' she said.