Jahana Hayes, a newcomer to the political scene, says race is an issue that’s at the forefront of the election for the vacant Fifth Congressional District.
"I can't take this skin off. It's who I am,” Hayes said during an interview at her Waterbury campaign headquarters. “I care about people and I think the only way to care about people is to have a deeper level of understanding to invite all people into the conversation."
She says it still surprises her when she thinks about the fact that a black Democrat has never represented Connecticut in Congress.
“Something is missing and it bothers me because I am a black woman,” Hayes said.
Hayes grew up in a housing project in Waterbury. She became pregnant as a teenager and later worked to put herself through school, receive advanced degrees, and teach social studies in Waterbury.
She rose to prominence in 2016 when she won the National Teacher of the Year award, bringing her into contact with national education advocacy groups and then-President Barack Obama.
She had never given any thought to running for public office, but then Rep. Elizabeth Esty, who has held the seat since 2013, announced she would not seek re-election after a scandal was revealed in her office involving the assault of one of her staff members, by her previous chief of staff.
Then, the calls came from supporters urging Hayes to run in her hometown district.
The encouragement, she says, shifted her speculation into action.
"It's so much bigger than me and it just invites other people into this conversation, you know people who feel like that's not about me or that doesn't concern me and that's really important."
The issue she has faced along the way is many within the state’s Democratic establishment telling her how they would rather see someone with more experience, or who is more of a known entity.
She says the fact that she is an outsider with an education background is what maker her candidacy unique and resonated with voters in places like Waterbury, Meriden, and New Britain.
When asked if she considers her candidacy to be an insurgent one, with ties to the “blue wave” of Democratic support expecting to sweep through the country, Hayes says she does consider her voice to be a new one, that should be heard in the district and in Washington.
"That narrative and the way they've always been has excluded a large majority of this district and not just in race and ethnicity but diversity of thought, diversity of experiences, socioeconomic backgrounds, geography. There are so many other people who want to be a part of this conversation. So, that mentality excludes all of those people."