john silver for ctnewsjunkie
Jahana Hayes takes a call from her opponent, Manny Santos, who conceded the race shortly after midnight (john silver for ctnewsjunkie)

WATERBURY — Democrat Jahana Hayes finished her meteoric ascent from national Teacher of the Year to the halls of Congress on Tuesday night, beating former Meriden mayor and Republican nominee Manny Santos for the open 5th Congressional District seat.

Hayes didn’t wait for a concession from Santos, instead taking the podium at the Marriott Courtyard in downtown Waterbury to a boisterous room of supporters while fighting back tears.

“You know who I am. You know what I stand for and you know what I believe in.  The votes also show that you also believe,” Hayes said. “You believe that we are so much better together.”

“All this hate and this intolerance and all this fear is not who we are.” 

Hayes declared victory, while Santos said it was premature. With 40 percent of the vote reporting, Hayes led with 53.2 percent of the vote. Santos had garnered approximately 46.8.

“I think it’s premature. We still have some key precincts that haven’t yet been reported,” Santos told NEWS8. “I think her (Hayes) speech is premature,” Santos said.

Hayes refuted, saying in her victory speech there is “no path for Santos to win.” Indeed, there was not, and around 12:15 a.m., he called to concede.

Hayes’ victory keeps the entire Congressional delegation in Democratic hands as the other four districts and Murphy’s Senate seat all remain in the party’s control.

“In all my years in politics, I’ve never seen a candidate as energetic, as inspiring, and as qualified to serve in Congress as Jahana Hayes,” Democratic State Party Chair Nick Balletto said. “I am so proud to have Jahana Hayes join our congressional delegation and I can’t wait to see what she accomplishes in Congress.”

Hayes will succeed Democrat Elizabeth Esty, who did not seek re-election. Hayes’ triumph is a boost to the liberal activist base of the national Democratic Party as the former Waterbury public school teacher became a media darling after a campaign video of her receiving the national teaching award from former President Barack Obama went viral.  Obama went on to endorse Hayes and her candidacy. Hayes was also helped by a visit from former Vice President Joe Biden last week.

A charismatic political newcomer, Hayes’ run for Congress began late and at the behest of U.S. Senator Christopher Murphy after Esty chose to not stand for re-election following her handling of an alleged assault by a senior staffer. Hayes was within a whisker of winning the endorsement of the state party at the district’s convention in June, then easily won the primary against endorsed candidate Mary Glassman in August.

Hayes went into the general election as a big favorite over Santos and with a sizeable advantage in fundraising. Hayes and Santos were scheduled for three debates in October, but the Meriden mayor dropped out of the final two debates.

Hayes’ backstory reads like a movie-of-the-week. She was a single mother at 19, living in public housing in Waterbury before putting herself through college part-time, first at Naugatuck Valley Community College, and then Southern Connecticut State University. She went on to teach history at John F. Kennedy High School and was named National Teacher of the Year in 2016.

“I woke up this day at 5 o’clock and went to church, and stared at the altar. I left church, I went to the cemetery to see my Grandpa. Then went to Tyrell Middle School to cast a ballot for me,” Hayes said with tears welling in her eyes. “God, family, country.”

Hayes’ story has gone viral and at 45, before even being sworn in, Hayes is viewed by some as a rising star in the Democratic Party. She is the second African-American to represent Connecticut in Congress, and the first African-American woman to do so. Hayes cited former New York representative Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to be elected to Congress in 1968. Sixty years later Connecticut joins that club.

“This history teacher made history,” Hayes said.

Hayes ran on a progressive agenda including single-payer healthcare and gun control and denounced the tone of President Donald Trump. 

Hayes’ campaign caught on with her former students and the urban centers of the sprawling Fifth District, which includes New Britain, Meriden and Waterbury. She made a point of visiting rural areas to shape herself as a representative for both urban and rural parts.

At times, the 5th has been a true swing district, represented for many years by moderate Republican Congresswoman Nancy Johnson.  It might have been in play for the right Republican candidate. However, with a strong candidate, a significant fundraising advantage and the rising blue tide nationally, it made for little drama on Tuesday night.