By Matt DeRienzo, Staff Reporter

Only four questions for the Democrats running for Connecticut’s 5th District congressional seat related to jobs or the economy out of more than 30 posed in a debate at Torrington City Hall Tuesday night.

Read the blow-by-blow transcript of the debate from our live blog.

And on questions about abortion, campaign finance, student loan forgiveness, medical marijuana, immigration, gay marriage, term limits, NASA, Afghanistan, Iran, the Department of Education, Social Security, and even a federal ban on texting while driving, Chris Donovan, Elizabeth Esty and Dan Roberti expressed literally zero differences on policy.

The candidates, instead, sought to distinguish themselves by personality and background.

Donovan answered almost every single question by citing specific legislation he had passed as a longtime state representative and Connecticut Speaker of the House.

Esty billed herself as the soccer mom who felt the call to be involved, and said that Congress won’t be fixed by sending another career politician to Washington.

Roberti said he’s most in touch with the needs of the district after working with the homeless and veterans and knocking on doors every day in the 5th District.

When discussing the issues, though, Tuesday night’s debate was “a love fest,” as one panelist put it.

The only departure from that harmony was when the issue of negative campaigning was raised toward the end of the hour-and-half-long session.

Donovan repeated his call for a “pledge” against negative campaigning that he made at a Feb. 26 debate in Southbury.

Roberti pounced, saying that Donovan’s campaign violated that pledge the morning after suggesting it by releasing a video of Esty saying she wouldn’t agree to it and attacking her for her position.

Each candidate drew heavily on personal anecdotes and local references to connect with the audience of more than 120 people who attended.

Dan Roberti talked about his “Uncle Jimmy,” who worked at Petricone’s Pharmacy in Torrington and went back to the store during the Flood of 1955 to save as many prescriptions as he could. He had to be evacuated from the top floor of the building.

Like Uncle Jimmy, Roberti said he would “step into the breach” on behalf of the district, like he did as a recent college grad in returning to New Orleans to help the community recover from Hurricane Katrina.

Esty talked about her gay brother in relation to fighting on issues of equality, and referenced the illegal medical marijuana use of her sister-in-law’s grandfather who recently died of cancer to argue for easing of laws.

Donovan talked about his grandfather and stressed over and over again the classic Democratic message of how government needs to take care of people, assuring access to health care, to a college education, to contraception, to protection of the elderly.

“Republicans and others in Washington aren’t saying we the people, they’re saying we, the few,” Donovan said, saying that they want to “rig elections” and “put obstacles in the way to stop people from voting.”

He said Republicans are “dividing people” by attacking women’s access to contraception and cutting programs that support children and the elderly.

Donovan said he’s been “sticking up for people” his entire career. While the three candidates agreed on every policy question that was raised during the debate, Donovan said he’s actually accomplished the passage of legislation on most of the issues.

“I’m Elizabeth Esty. I’m not a career politician,” is how Esty introduced herself Tuesday night. “Washington’s politics do not reflect our values. The lobbyists and career politicians have stacked the deck against the middle class.”

“If we send the same old politician to Washington,” she said, “we’re going to get the same old results.”

All three expressed their strong commitment to gay marriage, abortion rights and health insurance coverage of contraception. Donovan cited his work in the legislature in forcing Connecticut hospitals to provide the “morning after” pill to rape victims.

Esty said her political involvement started at age 17 as a Planned Parenthood volunteer, and that she comes from “a long line of feisty women” who have fought for women’s rights and gay rights.

“This is deeply personal to me,” she said. “There isn’t a candidate running for Congress this year with a longer, stronger record than I” on choice and women’s health.

“We do need more women at the table,” she said.

All three candidates agreed that the Citizens United decision allowing unlimited “Supre PAC” political campaign expenditures should be overturned.

“Citizens United is the worst Supreme Court decision since Bush v. Gore,” Roberti said.

On the question of how to encourage manufacturing in Connecticut, Roberti said he would “pick up the mantle” of 5th District Congressman Chris Murphy’s work on the issue.

“I hate to say this in the ball bearing city, but it’s not going to be the manufacturing of old,” Roberti said.

He said federal policies need to encourage investment in new technologies such as fuel cell manufacturing. Fuel Cell Inc. has plants in the 5th District communities of Danbury and Torrington.

Esty said her grandfather ran a manufacturing business, and she’s most familiar with the needs of family-owned small businesses. She said that the Small Business Administration needs to be streamlined, and money put into education for skills training that lines up with job opportunities.

Donovan cited his work in passing a bipartisan jobs bill last year with Malloy and General Assembly Republicans.

All three candidates backed decriminalization of marijuana and support of medical marijuana, with Donovan again citing his work to pass the former last year and to hopefully pass the latter this year in the Connecticut Legislature.

All three candidates said they support the DREAM Act that would open undocumented immigrant students’ access to college education. Donovan, again, cited his work in passing a similar law in Connecticut.

All three candidates said they oppose term limits.

All three support a universal health care system that would go beyond “Obamacare.”

All three said they support further investment in NASA.

All three would restore the Glass-Steagall Act, which was repealed during Bill Clinton’s presidency and allowed big banks to get into businesses they were tradionally restricted from.

Regarding the lack of focus on the jobs and economy Tuesday night, Donovan said after the debate that, “We can’t control the questions.”

He said that the unemployment rate is going down, and the country is seeing “some signs of progress.” He also said that topics raised on Tuesday about health care and education do relate to the economy.

Esty said that a relentless focus of her campaign has been on restoring American manufacturing, and that she’ll continue to stress it.

Roberti said that the first thing he talks about – and the thing that voters want to talk about when he goes door-to-door – is his jobs plan.

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