Democrat Jahana Hayes Goes 'Full Steam' In Historic Race For Congress
Team Hayes brought out the bullhorn. A League of Women Voters debate was starting in an hour in Danbury, Conn., so a crew of volunteers set up on the side of the road, waving campaign signs at passing cars and chanting about change.
“Who’s going to bring it? Jahana!” the cheer went.
Volunteer Mary Weber, 66, a dental hygienist from a rural town in Litchfield County, said she was backing Jahana Hayes because “she cares about people and that’s me. That’s what I want. That’s my America.”
If Hayes is elected on Nov. 6, she will make history as the first black woman to represent Connecticut in Congress. And she would do so in the 5th, a mostly white district. Hayes has left the talk of history-making to political pundits and the media.
But the former National Teacher of the Year made waves earlier in her campaign for saying Congress should look like us -- a phrase that was still being interpreted weeks from the election.
“Well, I think she means it should look like all people,” Weber offered. “Not just the 1 percent. Not just the wealthy people. … That kind of thing.”
‘Not Just The Cities’
Hayes, 45, has become one of the star political newcomers this election cycle, pulling in at least $1.3 million in individual campaign donations from across the country, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. She’s running against Republican Manny Santos, a military veteran and former mayor of Meriden who has aligned himself with President Trump.
Incumbent Rep. Elizabeth Esty, a Democrat, decided not to seek reelection.
National news and Rolling Stone have covered Hayes. U.S. Senator Chris Murphy was an early backer. Hayes’ first campaign ad -- a personal narrative of going from teen mom to nation’s top teacher congratulated by President Obama at the White House in 2016 -- went viral on the Internet.
“If Congress starts to look like us,” Hayes said in the ad, “no one can stop us.”
Locally, not everyone liked that phrase. They made conclusions about the “us.” During the primary, news outlets reported on a white member of the Danbury Democratic Town Committee who said she felt “excluded” by Hayes’ message, and accused the candidate of “veiling her own racism with allusions to diversity and fairness.” Letters to the editor rolled in with headlines such as, “Would Jahana Hayes represent everyone in the 5th District?”
A white male columnist for another newspaper wrote, “At the end of her commercial Hayes sinks to playing the race and gender cards.”
In mid-August, Hayes met with reporters at her Waterbury headquarters. She had defeated the Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate a day earlier and was a step closer to representing the 5th District, a chunk of northern and western Connecticut that includes cities like Waterbury, where Hayes grew up in public housing, and Litchfield County towns that are predominantly white.
“I want to make sure that everybody in every community knows that I will be their representative,” Hayes said. “Not just the cities, not just the places I’m familiar with … . That I fight just as hard for them and that they never have to question, you know, is she my representative as well?”
A reporter asked if some voters will be turned off by Hayes bringing in “identity politics.”
“I don’t think it’s identity politics,” Hayes said. “Congress should have multiple perspectives, and I don’t think Democrats or Republicans should be offended by that. Congress should look like us … . My challenge was, when I said that, why didn’t people automatically assume mothers and teachers and working-class people?”
Khalilah Brown-Dean, an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, said she saw a double standard in the backlash.
Wealthy white candidates running for governor, for instance, aren’t compelled to reassure lower-income voters that they’ll be able to adequately represent them, she said.
And yet people often want that disclaimer from candidates of color. It’s why political candidates from underrepresented groups tend to pursue a “delicate strategy” with voters, Brown-Dean said. “How do you affirm who you are while realizing that there are some people for whom your very existence becomes threatening or becomes problematic?”
Hayes could have been referring to women or working-class families when talking about a Congress that looks like “us,” Brown-Dean said.
“But even if it is about race, what is it that offends people to the point that they say, ‘There’s a problem that she dare say, Congress should look like the Americans they serve.’ ”
‘A Lot To Her’
A day after the League of Women Voters event in Danbury, Hayes had another debate -- this time, on the campus of Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. It wasn’t just the college crowd angling for selfies and a word with Hayes, although students like Kristina DeVivo weren’t shy about expressing their feelings.
“You are literally a role model to me,” DeVivo, 20, a junior in student government, told Hayes. “I want to be like you. And I want to be up there one day, like so much.”
Asia Clermont said she has seen up close how Hayes can motivate. Clermont teaches high school history after following in her mother’s footsteps.
“She’s so much more than just a black candidate or a woman candidate,” said Clermont, 29, Hayes’ oldest child. “There’s a lot to her.”
Hayes gave birth to her as a teenager and raised Clermont while working her way through college. “I really believe that education changes your life, just because I saw that first-hand,” Clermont said. “Seeing her go to school, get a job, and our lives changed drastically.”
Then and now, Clermont said her mother always goes "full steam." Hayes is still working her full-time job as an administrator in the Waterbury school district -- because, Hayes said, her family relies on her income. So nights and weekends are crammed with campaigning.
“After she finishes her job, she comes home and we have a little bit of downtime, but then she’s back out on the road again,” said husband Milford Hayes, a Waterbury police detective. “She’s capable and that’s what we need. We need a congresswoman that can multitask.”
Jahana Hayes is a mother of four. Her youngest child is 10 years old. And her firstborn, Clermont, is pregnant. Despite everything that’s going on, Clermont said, Hayes insisted on organizing the baby shower, planned for after the election.
“I was like, ‘Umm, but you’re running for Congress,” Clermont said. She remember Hayes responding with, “And? Am I not your mother anymore?”
On this night on the college campus, after spending an extra 40 minutes with supporters post-debate, Hayes started to head out with her family and campaign staff in tow. Yes, she said, some folks did get sensitive earlier in the race.
“But so many other people understood exactly what I meant and understood that it means more inclusive: Working families, mothers, teachers, daughters,” Hayes said.
Ultimately, wanting a Congress that looks like us is a message built on hope, she said. She hopes people who think there’s no way they can run for office might remember her campaign and start to think it’s possible.
Hayes has a lot going on, including the baby shower and helping her 10-year-old with his homework.
“But I think that’s what so many moms do every day,” Hayes said. “You know, you juggle all these things. The world doesn’t stop because you’re running for Congress.”
This report is part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. The initiative is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and includes reporters in Hartford, Conn., Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo., and Portland, Ore.