MERIDEN, Conn. — Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year turned congressional candidate, struggled with the publicity around her personal life story — growing up in a housing project and giving birth to a child at 17 — before she even decided to run for her district’s seat.
“Even as Teacher of the Year, I’d lead with my story not because I wanted people to feel sorry for me, but because I knew that there were some people who would make a story out of that and I did not want to give them power over my narrative,” Hayes told Yahoo News. “I didn’t want someone else spinning my story or telling it in a way that was demeaning or devaluing to me or to the people who might now be in that situation and be reading it as a negative.”
Hayes is part of a class of progressive Democratic women, people of color and teachers who won their primaries, in many cases running against the party establishment. If victorious in November, she is poised to be the first black woman and first black Democrat to represent Connecticut in Congress.
Hayes grew up “surrounded by abject poverty, drugs and violence” in the Berkeley Heights housing projects of Waterbury, Conn. Before becoming a teacher, she was a single mother at age 17 who considered dropping out of school. But instead of quitting, Hayes entered a teen parent program and went on to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree.
“What comes out of destructive neighborhoods where multiple generations of the same family live in poverty succumb to addiction and are surrounded by persistent violence?” Hayes asked a group of 7,500 National Education Association members months after receiving the honor from former President Barack Obama. “What comes out of the cycle of teenage pregnancy where a grandmother, mother, and a daughter are all parents before the age of 18?”
“A National Teacher of the Year,” she answered.
Hayes, who is 45, taught history and social studies for 14 years in Waterbury and New Haven. Her work inspiring students to get involved in community service earned her the distinction as one of the country’s top educators.
While she’s no longer in the classroom, Hayes trains teachers as a talent and professional development supervisor for Waterbury Public Schools. She campaigns during lunch and after work. “I couldn’t afford to quit my job,” said Hayes. “But every time I feel fatigued, I run into someone who says, ‘Thank you for doing this.’ Or even better, ‘You inspire me. I’m a single mom, but you reminded me that I still have fight in me.’”
Now, with the encouragement of Connecticut’s Sen. Chris Murphy, who previously represented the district, Hayes has added ‘congressional candidate’ to her résumé.
Reflecting on her background, which doesn’t include holding public office, Hayes told Yahoo News she had to “expand the definition of experience, [rather than] conceding to the fact that I didn’t have experience.”
“For the people that said I didn’t have the experience, I had to push back and challenge them,” said Hayes. “There are different types of experience. Life gives you a whole lot of experience. Doing things in a non-elected capacity gives you valuable experience. We need to redefine what experience is because this idea that the only type of experience that’s valid is political experience is completely flawed.”
Hayes was not her party’s first pick before the primaries. The Democratic nominating convention endorsed her opponent, Mary Glassman, a former local elected official. It didn’t help that Hayes, a political newcomer, joined the race less than two weeks before the convention. Glassman had been running since April, when the incumbent, Elizabeth Esty, said she would step down after this term, following a sexual harassment scandal in her office.
“Originally, when Jahana Hayes got in the race, there were rumblings from some of the establishment that she’s ‘just a teacher,’” said Kenny Curran, chairman of the Waterbury Democratic Town Committee. “Well, a teacher is someone who we have to be listening to. They should be in the room because their voice is important. And so is a firefighter or a custodian or an accountant.”
While Hayes did not have her party’s endorsement, she gained wide support from the Working Families Party and the AFL-CIO. And on August 14, she beat Glassman with 62 percent of the vote.
Hayes attributes her primary victory to a strategy of reaching out to independents.
“We didn’t just target traditional Democratic primary voters,” she said, “[but also] every single person who I could register, who I could move from unaffiliated to Democrat. And it’ll be the same strategy moving forward.”
Manny Santos, Hayes’s Republican challenger, also set his sights on unaffiliated voters. “They, and frankly also Democrat and Republican voters in general, need to be given clear choices,” said Santos. “And this year they have a clear choice.”
Santos, the former mayor of Meriden, said the clear distinction between himself and Hayes is “having somebody to represent the fifth district in Washington, D.C., that can work with this president, this administration.”
Hayes, who most recently received a nod from Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, holds progressive views on immigration, minimum wage, gun control, free education and Medicare for all. She said she is running “for the soul of the country” on “basic democratic values.”
“We take care of our neighbors,” said Hayes. “We make sure that government is about people, appealing to people’s moral center to say we are a country that educates our children, that takes care of our elderly, that supports people in crisis.”
Santos, a veteran and an immigrant — he came with his family as a child from Portugal — says the Trump administration has improved the country’s mood. “There’s a substantive hope. People are finding work. Companies are hiring. We see economic prosperity, finally, after too many years of a stagnant economy. In general, Americans are again proud of their country because we have a president that speaks highly of veterans, of the American potential and in what makes America great.”
Santos considers himself “the success story that so many from abroad want to experience” but only if, he says, they enter the country “the legal way.” He advocates for low taxes, a border wall, Second Amendment rights and repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Santos claims that Hayes “doesn’t run on issues. She runs on emotions and identity politics. I use my background and so-called identity politics for my campaign to bolster my policy stance and my qualifications. Hayes uses it in front of all of that because that’s what she’s known for.”
According to Santos, for Republicans, there is “a better chance of winning” in the fifth district because it “leans more conservative” than other parts of the state.
Winning over unaffiliated voters is a key strategy in what has been called an unpredictable district, where over 40 percent of the electorate is unaffiliated.
“The fifth district is a very independently-minded district,” said Curran, of the Waterbury Democratic Town Committee. “[Voters] don’t necessarily follow national trends.”
While Democrats have vowed a blue wave, especially in the House of Representatives, the fifth district stands to be one of most competitive races this midterm election. Before 2006, the district, which covers the hill towns, farms, and suburbs of the state’s northwest corner, was traditionally represented by Republicans until Chris Murphy beat GOP moderate Nancy Johnson. And in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton carried the district by a narrow margin of 4.1 points.
“This district covers the full spectrum,” said Hayes. “It’s like a microcosm of the entire country. You can’t take anything for granted in this district because it could go either way.”
Curran refers to the 2010 midterm elections as an example of fifth district unpredictability. “In 2010, the big tea party year, Democrats lost a lot of seats across the country, and on paper, the fifth district should have been one of those seats. [Instead] they reelected Chris Murphy that year.”
“They don’t call it the ‘fighting fifth’ for no reason,” added Curran.
The House seat was originally targeted by the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). Democrats have never nominated a person of color in the Fifth Congressional District, whose population is 79 percent white. Republican Gary Franks was elected to the seat in 1990, becoming Connecticut’s first African-American congressman. If Hayes wins she would most likely join Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts (who is running unopposed) as the first black women in Congress from New England states.
“There is a connection happening that is beyond race, beyond any kind of claim of identity politics,” said Curran. “She just happens to be a qualified person running for Congress who is African-American. She’s not qualified because she is African-American.”
Leslie Blatteau, a New Haven teacher and mother who drove to Meriden last weekend to attend a Hayes campaign rally, agreed but saw the importance of Hayes’s identity in this election. “We’re past the point of needing more people of color and women of color at the federal level,” said Blatteau. “There’s a sense of hope when you’re seeing people like Jahana and Ayana [Pressley] running and winning.”
“I’m a history teacher,” Hayes said at her campaign rally in Meriden. “And what history has taught me is that it is moments like this, where people feel empty, where everyday people step up and we’re so much better on the other side. I am so excited about the possibility of who we are about to be.”
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