Democrat Jahana Hayes, an educator who rose from poverty and teen motherhood to become a National Teacher of the Year, made her own history Tuesday night as the first black woman elected to Congress from the state of Connecticut.
Hayes won her U.S. House race against Republican Manny Santos in the 5th Congressional District, according to unofficial tallies. The Associated Press called the race after midnight, and Hayes said Santos called to concede.
Hayes’ supporters waited for nearly three hours in a ballroom at the Courtyard Marriott in Waterbury, just a couple of miles from the housing project where Hayes grew up. When she arrived around 11 p.m. to give a victory speech, they erupted. And she showed pride for her hometown, nicknamed the Brass City.
“People have said to me, ‘She doesn’t have what it takes. She’s not built for this,’” Hayes told the crowd. “Not only am I built for this, I’m Brass City built for it.”
The win for Hayes in the 5th District — a chunk of Connecticut that includes cities and rural towns in the western part of the state — caps a stunning ascent for the 45-year-old political newcomer.
The race opened up in the spring after U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, a Democrat, decided not to seek reelection following accusations that she mishandled a harassment case among her staff.
Hayes, who won acclaim as 2016 National Teacher of the Year, then announced her candidacy and gained an early backer in U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy.
In her first run for office, Hayes raised at least $1.3 million in individual campaign donations from across the country — a massive advantage that allowed her to vastly outspend Santos, the former mayor of Meriden who pulled in just over $60,000 for his congressional bid, according to the most recent filings with the Federal Election Commission.
Hayes also harnessed an energized network of volunteers that included a youth coalition dubbed Students For Hayes.
Along the way, some supporters said they saw Hayes as an inspiration. When Hayes talks policy, she draws on her personal history: Growing up, she said her mother struggled with addiction. Hayes was a teen mom but worked her way through college and became an educator.
In her speech Tuesday night, Hayes said: “Everything in my life happened exactly the way it was supposed to happen.”
She was a social studies teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in her hometown of Waterbury when she won National Teacher of the Year — a distinction that brought her to the White House to meet then-President Barack Obama, who would ultimately endorse her in the 5th District race.
Throughout the campaign, the mother of four juggled the demands of parenthood — helping her 10-year-old son with his homework and organizing her 29-year-old daughter’s baby shower — with running for Congress and making a living. Hayes has continued to work full-time for the Waterbury public schools, where she is now an administrator. Hayes said her family couldn’t afford for her to go on leave.
“It’s super hard,” Hayes told Connecticut Public Radio recently. “I couldn’t quit my job.”
During rare downtime, Hayes said she finds relaxation in prayer.
“There’s not a lot of time for much else,” Hayes said after one of her debates with Santos. “I have a tremendous family, a lot of support. But I just pray for guidance to make sure that I’m doing the right thing. And whenever I’m the least bit fatigued, I run into someone who just really reminds me that this is so much bigger than you. Your voice is my voice. And that, to me, is so incredibly powerful.”
Santos, a Portuguese immigrant who served in the military, highlighted his own personal history to voters and described himself as an American success story. But the two candidates differed widely on the issues.
Santos, for instance, supported President Trump’s immigration policies. Hayes was blunt in describing her opposition to Trump’s border wall, calling it “racist.”
“We’re talking about putting a wall on the southern border of this country, not the northern border,” Hayes said during the primary. “Let’s just call it what it is.”