Troubled Student, Teen Mom, Teacher of the Year: Is Connecticut Congressional Candidate Jahana Hayes the New Face of the Democratic Party?

Jahana Hayes (left) celebrates being named the 2016 National Teacher of the Year with then-President Barack Obama during an event at the White House in Washington, D.C., on May 3, 2016. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

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Updated 8/15/2017: In the August 14 Democratic primary, Jahana Hayes prevailed against Mary Glassman.

The congressional candidacy of Jahana Hayes, the acclaimed educator running as a Democrat in Connecticut’s 5th District, puts an unusual emphasis on her biography.

That’s no surprise, since it’s the stuff of Hollywood. Raised in public housing in a tough corner of western Connecticut, Hayes grew up amid the wreckage of American urban policy, sporadically unhoused and stalked by addiction. After giving birth at 17, she switched high schools and considered dropping out before ultimately completing an alternative program. Though she’d hoped to become a teacher, she took a job after graduation instead and focused on raising her daughter.

That was 1990. By 2007, after a decade spent collecting degrees — an associate’s at Naugatuck Valley Community College, a bachelor’s at at Southern Connecticut State, a master’s at the University of Saint Joseph — she had returned to her hometown of Waterbury to work as a history teacher. In 2016, she was named the National Teacher of the Year. And last year, while working on a Habitat for Humanity project with her students, she decided to run for office.

Hayes willingly shares the details with anyone who asks, including on a recent appearance on Morning Joe. “I’m a person who was a high school dropout, who was a teenage mom, who was homeless, who struggled,” she told her hosts. “That’s what I taught my students, ‘You can be better. Hope is a strategy.’”

As a young mother, she might never have dared hope that she would someday hold her current job as a talent specialist at Waterbury Public Schools; that she would share her work with her child, now 28 and a social studies teacher in West Hartford; that she would ever stand on a stage next to President Barack Obama and former U.S. Secretary of Education John King, two other black educators who grew up poor and credit schools as saving influences; or that she would come within striking distance of a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But in 2018, her most unhoped-for hopes realized, Hayes is still telling and retelling the story of her girlhood. Burton Saxon, her professional mentor and a former Connecticut Teacher of the Year himself, told The 74 that the hardships she overcame are now some of her greatest assets.

“Her background is a little bit unconventional, but I think she’s in touch with quite a few Americans of all ages and backgrounds who feel that a lot of people in the political system don’t pay much attention to their needs,” he said. “And I think she would represent them effectively.”

That possibility — that a product of one of America’s broken communities will end up representing its citizens in Congress — is becoming less fantastic by the day. But before she can move on to the next happy ending, Hayes will have to do some serious politicking.

Tough Race

Hayes isn’t the only Democrat vying to succeed incumbent U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, who declined to run for re-election after mishandling a sexual harassment scandal in her D.C. office. In the Aug. 14 primary, she’ll face Mary Glassman, an established local officeholder and former nominee for lieutenant governor. Glassman’s connections to the state’s Democratic gatekeepers, along with their fundraising networks, marked her as an early favorite to win the nomination.

As the summer wore on, though, she found herself locked in a surprisingly tight race. Though Hayes only declared her candidacy in May, just a few weeks before the party’s nominating convention, she did so at the urging of U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy. (Murphy, who previously occupied the seat and who has spoken of the need for his party to more closely resemble its base, has not endorsed a candidate in the primary.) Local news coverage caught on quickly, and volunteers and donations followed.

“She hadn’t declared her candidacy that far in advance, and then to come in and be able to present herself as a viable candidate against someone who is clearly more experienced as a politician came as a surprise to many people,” Bilal Sekou, a professor of political science at the University of Hartford, told The 74.

The true surprise came at the Democratic convention. Instead of watching Glassman’s coronation as party favorite, Hayes narrowly — and temporarily, it turned out — won the necessary 171 votes for the party’s unofficial endorsement. What followed was described as chaos, as several members of the New Britain delegation switched their votes and backed Glassman instead. The move raised eyebrows around the state, and a hearing was later convened to review the voting process.

Since then, the campaign has been one of the most publicized and closely fought Democratic primaries of the cycle. Hayes’s name has lately been mentioned in the same breath as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the unknown community organizer who outmaneuvered longtime incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District. Yet again, it seemed, a fresh (brown) face was challenging a (white) party hand — in other words, a classic insider-outsider clash for the future of Democratic politics.

The comparison might send shivers down the spines of party strategists. According to partisan voting indices, NY-14 is 29 percentage points more Democratic than the nation as a whole; CT-05 is just two points more Democratic. Nicknamed the “Fightin’ Fifth,” it is the only district in the state where Republicans are competitive, and Esty was seen as a GOP target before announcing her retirement. Though the national climate has turned against them, the three potential Republican challengers — psychologist Ruby Corby O’Neill, businessman Rich DuPont, and former Meriden, Connecticut, mayor Manny Santos — would love nothing more than for the Democratic nominee to emerge from her primary branded as a leftist caricature.

In fact, the two races aren’t as similar as they appear. Ocasio-Cortez cast herself as a socialist firebrand punishing an incumbent for his ideological timidity, but there’s little separating Hayes and Glassman in terms of public policy. On issues like health care, gun control, and even education, many of their positions are virtually identical. Both are progressive women in a campaign season when progressive women have seized the spotlight in Democratic races.

The major point of contrast, race, is one that Democrats have grown comfortable discussing openly. Like Ocasio-Cortez in the Bronx, or Georgia’s Democratic nominee for governor, Stacey Abrams, Hayes is a candidate of color. Typically the Democrats’ most reliable voters, women like Hayes are now pushing to see themselves more represented in the party they support. And the party is taking notice.

“Connecticut has a situation where the Democratic Party increasingly depends on the votes and the support of people of color, and yet the congressional delegation is all white, and much of the leadership of the party … does not reflect that diversity,” Sekou said. “So her candidacy, I think, offers an interesting window into some of the challenges that the party has with regard to access to opportunity for people of color.”

Whatever it may seem, Hayes isn’t on the outside looking in. Even after the bizarre outcome of the nominating convention, she won the backing of the AFL-CIO, perhaps the strongest organizing force in Democratic politics. Even better, she now counts among her supporters Sen. Kamala Harris, whom most observers expect to contend for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. And despite launching her campaign a month after Glassman, she has pulled ahead in the fundraising totals.

It’s almost unheard of for a novice politician to attract those kinds of resources. But voters in the district are more impressed by the ease with which Hayes has transitioned from the classroom to the campaign trail. Observers expecting to cringe through freshman gaffes have instead been impressed by her cool performance in public appearances.

Her biggest electoral liability — a lack of experience in public office — has proven almost a non-issue. When asked about her qualifications for government service, Hayes cites her years spent in the classroom solving problems on a limited budget. More than that, she has endlessly recounted the experiences that shaped her years in Waterbury.

“I know what it’s like to go to bed to gunshots outside, I know what it’s like to wake up in the morning to a dead body in the hallway,” she told an audience at a recent candidate forum. “No job gives you that kind of experience. Life gives you that kind of experience.”

Sekou says that, more than flash or even policy substance, that’s the kind of argument that could push Hayes ahead of her opponent. While being named National Teacher of the Year is among the rarest of laurels, her early-life challenges could carry her further than her career accomplishments.

“Clearly her life story is one that resonates with a lot of women of color — particularly in the state, but also a lot of women in general who have been single parents or had to really struggle through life to achieve the heights she’s been able to achieve.”

The Natural

With her national profile still growing, Hayes is easily the most famous educator running for office this fall. But she’s far from the only one. In the wake of mass teacher walkouts over school funding this spring, her bid represents only the crest of a wave.

Education Week has identified more than 150 mostly female teachers who have filed to run for a state legislative seat this year, including 25 who have already won their primaries. Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics tallies no fewer than 26 female educators, like Hayes, who have filed to run for either Congress or statewide offices like governor in 2018. Such is the volume of positions up for election at the municipal, county, state, and federal levels that it’s hard to maintain an accurate count (the American Federation of Teachers claims that more than 300 of its members are running for office somewhere), but election watchers agree that the surge of activism arising from America’s schools is undeniable.

According to Debbie Walsh, director of the Rutgers center, that makes perfect sense. Women in politics are often drawn from the ranks of current and former teachers, she says, and their vocation even offers certain advantages.

“They seem like, in some ways, the perfect people to think about running,” she told The 74. “They’re engaged and connected with their communities, and they’re well known in the local area at least. Teachers get kicked around a lot. But I think the reality is, people respect and like teachers, so you come to running for office with a certain kind of gravitas.”

For teachers, gravitas is earned in the classroom. According to Burt Saxon, who supervised Hayes’s student teaching in New Haven’s James Hillhouse High School, that presented no difficulty. She formed an “instantaneous” bond with students, he recalls, taking to the work as instinctively as she now connects with voters.

“I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a ‘natural’ teacher,” he said. “There’s some skills that you need to learn. But boy, she picked them up so fast it was almost frightening.”

Over a decade later, one particular story stands out to Saxon from Hayes’s days as a trainee.

While they worked together, Saxon was named Connecticut Teacher of the Year — a ceremonial post akin to state ambassador for public education. His duties were time-consuming, if largely ceremonial, so after approving Hayes’s lesson plan one Friday afternoon, he said that he could only drop in to observe the end of the class period.

The lesson that day centered on Madam C.J. Walker, a destitute single mother and former laundress who built a massive cosmetics company at the turn of the 20th century, becoming the wealthiest black woman in America. When Saxon arrived midway through, he found the students rapt; many were sharing stories of mothers and aunts who had encountered obstacles in their own careers.

“I came in to watch the end of the class, and one of my students said, very politely and respectfully, ‘Dr. Saxon, we all think you’re a great teacher, but could you come back Monday? We’re having this really heavy discussion,’” he told The 74. “I said, ‘Now, this is kind of intriguing. I’ve just been named to represent the teachers of the entire state, and my own students are asking me to come back Monday.’ The first week, she was a superstar.”

Superstar charisma will only take you so far, either as an educator or an office seeker. Like the hundreds of other teachers turning to politics this year, Hayes is venturing outside the professional realm she was trained for; more than most, she faces seasoned and resourceful opponents. Perhaps one or two of this year’s first-time candidates, if any, will enjoy a lengthy stay at the top, as former teachers Elizabeth Warren, Patty Murray, and Jon Tester have.

But if any of them do, Saxon thinks it’ll be his former student.

“I wish her all the best,” he said. “I hope she wins the primary and then beats the Republican, but I can say this: Whether she wins the primary or doesn’t win the primary, you haven’t heard the last of her.”

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