John F. Silver / ctnewsjunkie

WASHINGTON, CT — Voters who flocked to town hall Sunday for a candidate forum didn’t find much of a difference between former Simsbury First Selectman Mary Glassman and Waterbury teacher Jahana Hayes, both of whom are vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination to fill the open 5th Congressional District seat.

On every issue, such as a public option for healthcare, gun control, immigration, the environment, education, or government openness — Glassman and Hayes were in lock-step with traditional Democratic Party values. Both drew applause from the standing-room-only crowd for their criticisms of the Trump administration and promised to provide the checks-and-balances on the President.

On matters of policy, there was little debate between the two.

What may most clearly separate Glassman and Hayes are their styles, the substance of their ideas, and possibly their ability to get out the vote as they head into the Democratic primary on Aug. 14. The contrasts on Sunday were their personal stories and experience.

John F. Silver / ctnewsjunkie

Glassman is the former First Selectwoman of Simsbury who has twice run for statewide office. She made sure to highlight her long record as a public official and her work as a former newspaper reporter, lawyer, and child advocate. She currently works for the Capital Region Education Council (CREC). She was narrowly endorsed by the party at the state Democratic convention in June.

Glassman promised to use her experience and know-how within the political landscape for the benefit of residents in the 5th Congressional District.

“There are a lot of similarities between us, where we came from and our values,” Glassman said.

“I grew up in New Britain, I have never done nothing else except try to make a difference in my community … We need to go to Washington and make sure we bring back money for this district. For every dollar we spend, we get 86 cents back. That is not enough.”

Hayes was the 2016 National Teacher of the Year but is a political neophyte having jumped into the race in June just prior to the Democratic convention. She has the backing of several unions and the endorsement of California Senator Kamala Harris, a rising star in Democratic politics.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy also encouraged Hayes to run.

Hayes speaks openly about her life growing up in public housing in Waterbury, hearing gunshots and finding a body in a hallway. She spoke about becoming a teenage mother and her experiences working as a teacher. Her reason for running came out of a concern for where she feels the country is headed, and her frustration at politicians in Washington.

“I can’t yell at the TV another day; I can’t be a passive participant,” Hayes said. “I can’t be the mule to get someone over the line, or try and get this dynamic person to carry the torch. If not me, then who? I think everyone should be asking themselves that question. We have to stop waiting for other people.”

Perhaps the only point of tension in the almost two-hour forum came when questions were raised about Hayes’ experience.

She dismissed experienced politicians as “pushing papers behind a desk.”

“My experience is boots on the ground,” Hayes said to raucous applause. “Time and time again, I have had doors shut in my face and walked around and gone in the back door. I care about people. I care about people not having a voice, not having an opinion. I care about living on the margins … I know what that feels like.

“No job teaches you that experience. Life teaches you that experience,” Hayes said.

Glassman took issue with the characterization of pushing papers behind a desk.

“I am a public servant. I don’t sit behind a desk, I build relationships,” Glassman said. “That is what we do every day. We are the ones that plow the roads. We are the ones that pick up the garbage.”

“In Simsbury, a Republican town, I got elected for 16 years. That isn’t being out of touch. That isn’t sitting behind a desk. That is bringing creativity and vision.”

Glassman’s experience and record in local and state government is a central tenet of her campaign.

“I think that we, in these difficult times, need to use all the tools we have — local, state and federal,” Glassman said following the forum. “Navigating Washington is very hard and you don’t know how the federal laws interact. I think that’s where my strength is. Building collaborations, building partnerships on issues such as transportation, apprenticeships in manufacturing. We need to do a better job leveraging the money we get from Washington to help our communities. And, to use all our tools such as using state laws to fight this administration.”

Hayes has generated a grassroots movement of young volunteers and despite her newness, nearly won the Democratic endorsement at the convention last month. She doesn’t look at her lack of experience managing government as a negative. Rather, she sees it as a positive.

John F. Silver / ctnewsjunkie

“This idea that in order to represent people you have to have a long political career, or long legislative experience, that dismisses everyone else,” Hayes said after the forum. “How can you properly represent me if you only see it through one lens? If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

“I know that my lens is broader. I know where my experience comes from.”