CT Congresswoman: Jahana Hayes
Updated: Mar 15, 2019
Driven by a powerful personal narrative, a network of young volunteers and public speaking skills honed in her years as a teacher, political newcomer Jahana Hayes made history by becoming the first African-American woman to represent Connecticut in Congress.
Hayes scored a solid victory over Republican Manny Santos, the former mayor of Meriden and a social conservative who struggled to raise money. “People have said to me: ‘She doesn’t have what it takes,’” said Hayes, a former national teacher of the year from Waterbury. “Not only am I built for this, I’m Brass City built for this.” She told her supporters she couldn’t have done it alone.
“You … believe that we have to protect the future that we promised for our kids,” she said. “You also believe that we have an obligation to be of service to someone else ... that true leaders lead from the front and lead by example, and reject all of this hate and intolerance and this indescribable fear that does not define who we are.”
Hayes’ apparent victory in the 5th Congressional District is part of a broader racial and ideological shift within the Democratic Party. Like other Democrats who are shaking up the party establishment, she embraced progressive policies and won the endorsement of organized labor and the Working Families Party.
In addition to being the first African-American Connecticut has elected to Congress since Republican Gary Franks held the 5th District seat in the 1990s, Hayes would join fellow Democrat Ayanna Pressley of Boston as the first women of color from New England to serve in the House.
The 5th District, which stretches from Danbury to New Britain and includes the Litchfield County hill towns as well as Meriden and Waterbury, is majority white. But Hayes’ identity as a black woman was central to her campaign. “I know the system does not reflect us,’’ she said in a video that went viral. “But I believe that all of us have power, all of us belong, because I’ve seen it in my own life.”
In a chamber where wealthy, white men still predominate, Hayes' impoverished roots will set her apart. Throughout the campaign, she spoke bluntly about coming of age in one of Waterbury's toughest neighborhoods, where gunfire and drug use were common. She was raised by her grandmother in public housing after her mother became addicted to drugs. At 17, she became a mother.
Hayes eventually made her way through community college, graduated from Southern Connecticut State University and earned a master’s degree. She taught history at Kennedy High School in Waterbury and was named National Teacher of the Year in 2016.
In the classroom Hayes strove to instill a commitment to community service in her students. So when 5th District U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty announced in early April that she was not seeking re-election following criticism that she mishandled a sexual harassment complaint in her Washington office, Hayes said she felt compelled to step up.
Her candidacy had an earlier booster in U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, one of the most powerful Democrats in Connecticut. But she faced opposition from within the Democratic Party: Former Simsbury first selectman Mary Glassman, a political veteran, also sought the seat. Glassman won the backing of delegates at the party convention in May of 2018, but Hayes won the Democratic primary in August 2018.
“We need a change and Jahana's about the children, about our future,” said Joyce Reid, who lived near Hayes in Berkeley Heights, a Waterbury public housing complex, more than three decades ago. “She will make a difference.”
Please join Ethnic Online in congratulating Jahana Hayes as the 1st Black Congresswoman in Connecticut!