FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. -- Clay Cope is fighting an invisible opponent in the race for the congressional seat in Connecticut’s 5th District.
At least that’s the way the Cope, the first selectman of Sherman, sees it.
Cope, a Republican, is challenging two-term incumbent Elizabeth Esty in November’s general election. While Cope differs with Esty on a variety of issues, her lack of visibility in the western region of the district is one of his main themes.
On Esty’s website, her “Elizabeth In Your Town” calendar shows she visited Danbury a handful of times over the past six months -- but has been nearly invisible in Bethel, Brookfield, New Fairfield and Sherman. According to her calendar, her only visit to Newtown this year was for a 5k race in Sandy Hook. Esty resides in Cheshire.
“If I’m elected, I’ll visit every town and meet with the mayors and first selectmen and selectmen,’’ Cope said. “I was asked to run, and when I evaluated her performance, I realized I had never met her. She’s never to been to Sherman before this year. It’s one of the five towns that borders Candlewood Lake, and has one of the largest lake frontage areas. It’s an economic driver for the area. Her husband was the former DEEP Commission, and for her to ignore us is unforgivable.”
Cope sent an email last week challenging Esty to a debate in each of the 41 towns in the district. “I am sure voters are anxious to learn exactly what she has achieved for their communities over the past four years,’’ Cope said, “because I can’t find any evidence progress on the key issues, like the economy and jobs and the rise in the risk of terrorism, that are important to voters.”
Cope’s ascent in the Republican Party is one of the more unlikely stories of the election season. The Texas native worked in sales and marketing in the fashion industry for 28 years for designer Victor Costa. He shuttled between Sherman and New York City for several years, and became a full-time Sherman resident over a decade ago. He started his political career on Sherman’s Planning and Zoning Board, served as the president of the town’s Library Board and later became chairman of the library building committee.
His political roots took hold in 2011, when he ousted four-term incumbent Andrea O’Connor for the first selectman’s office in Sherman. Cope’s “pay as you go approach” contrasted with O’Connor’s reliance on grants and bonded spending to improve the town’s crumbling infrastructure.
Cope said Sherman has taken on zero debt since he became first selectman, and the budget has stayed flat this year. The town has funded its priorities -- schools, roads, the firehouse -- with an increase in the mill rate of just a third of 1 percent this year, and that was after Gov. Dannel Malloy rescinded funding at the 11th hour for education cost sharing and from anticipated sales tax revenue.
Cope promises to bring the same fiscal approach to Congress if he’s elected. He believes stimulating growth and prosperity and balancing the federal budget are among the key issues in the upcoming election.
“The amount of our federal deficit -- $19 trillion and growing -- is just staggering,’’ Cope said. “Yet no one in Washington seems to care. The massive debt has become part of the status quo.”
The other main issues confronting voters, Cope feels, is national security and securing the national borders. He’s also a strong proponent of the Second Amendment and is against gun control. “Any potential Federal legislation aimed at combating terrorists by restricting access to guns for law-abiding American citizens for self-protection must carefully preserve the rights of Americans to due process,’’ he said.
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton and other Republican leaders from around the district asked Cope to run against Esty. He realizes he has challenges, particularly in swaying voters in some of the larger towns in the district, such as New Britain, Waterbury and Meriden. The district includes sections of Fairfield, Litchfield, Hartford and New Haven counties.
"Clay is a hardworking first selectman who is experienced and will bring a positiveness into the job," Boughton told The Hartford Courant. "(Being first selectman) has been a great testing ground for Clay to understand the needs of residents. … It's the place every federal candidate ought to start to understand how decisions in Hartford and Washington affect their constituents."
One of Cope’s political role models is Nancy Johnson, who held a Congressional seat in the region for more than 20 years. Republicans have not won the seat since 2006, when then-political upstart Chris Murphy unseated Johnson.
Esty won a close vote in 2012 over Andrew Roraback, and defeated Mark Greenberg in 2014. Democrats hold a slight registration edge in the district, but nearly 45 percent of the region's voters are registered independents. Cope needs to tap into them to unseat Esty.
“Nancy Johnson was a big help to me,’’ Cope said. “She was a great representative. She will be my role model if I’m elected. Her brand of customer service is a lot like mine.”
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