WASHINGTON — New York Representative Hakeem Jeffries drew raucous applause Thursday from Democrats — none more so than from Jahana Hayes of Waterbury — as he nominated Nancy Pelosi of California to be Speaker of the House for the 116th Congress.
“House Democrats are down with Nancy P.,” Jeffries thundered, bringing Hayes to her feet. Smiling broadly, she began applauding — later explaining it was just a “surreal” moment as Democrats officially took control of the House of Representatives.
Hayes, a 45-year-old former national teacher of the year, says she is ready to get to work in Congress where she is among a large and diverse freshmen class of Democrats. During the opening day ceremonies, she sat between two other freshmen: Lauren Underwood, a 32-year-old registered nurse from Illinois and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a 29-year-old who has drawn national media coverage.
Representative John Larson, who has represented Connecticut’s 1st District since 1999, sees Hayes as a rising star noting that she has already begun recruiting co-sponsors for “Social Security 2100” — a bill from the previous Congress that seeks to extend the Social Security Trust Fund’s solvency by gradually removing an exemption from social security taxes on income above $127,200.
“She has an infectious personality and I think she’ll be a star,” he said.
Hayes began Thursday with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The group held its own swearing-in ceremony with 55 members, the largest total for the caucus. She is the first black woman to represent Connecticut. Hayes said that about 70 supporters from Connecticut — mostly from the 5th District — arrived Wednesday night in D.C. and were on hand Thursday morning for the CBC ceremony. She was holding a reception at her office later Thursday.
The 116th Congress officially opened at noon. After a lengthy quorum call, they elected Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker — defeating Republican Kevin McCarthy of California, who drew most of the votes from the Republican minority. There were 15 Democrats who did not vote for Pelosi.
Hayes left the floor for about seven minutes with Elizabeth Esty, who was in attendance. Hayes said that Esty has been helping her settle in to office — and had provided her a much-needed snack and bottle of water. Hayes, who was losing her voice, noted that she hadn’t been sick during the entire campaign but is now under the weather.
The entire Connecticut delegation voted for Pelosi. The Republican National Committee issued a statement criticizing Hayes for voting for Pelosi, saying she had campaigned in Connecticut for new leadership.
“We said it all along — a vote for any Democrat was a vote for Nancy Pelosi at the Speaker’s helm. Today, Jahana Hayes proved that despite tough talk to voters, she is nothing but a rubber stamp,” said RNC spokeswoman Ellie Hockenbury.
Speaking briefly off the House floor, Hayes says her focus now is on getting the government back open.
“I think it is unconscionable that we are still closed,” she said. “We are here to work. We should be working on a solution and opening up organizations and agencies instead of holding them hostage.”
Representative Rosa DeLauro shared a similar sentiment as she chased after three grandchildren heading down the Capitol hallway. The trio had joined her on the House floor for the opening day ceremonies.
The House was expected to remain in session into the evening as House Democrats planned votes on legislation to temporarily fund the government to end a partial government shutdown now in its second week.
Back in Hayes’ Longworth House office, a steady stream of supporters were stopping by to say hello including Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary, who served on the Waterbury police force with Jahana’s husband, Milford Hayes.
Dr. Jacquelyn Jordan, a retired Howard University dean, also stopped by. She grew up in the same Berkeley Heights public housing apartment complex and knew Hayes’ husband’s parents. Her daughter graduated high school with Milford Hayes. She didn’t meet Jahana until 2016, when Jordan was the keynote speaker in Waterbury for a National Congress of Black Women event honoring Hayes.
“I’m so proud of her,” Jordan said. “She knows issues from the grassroots level. She knows what is going on and can express, for example, how health care effects low income families because she’s experienced that.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this story included a misspelling — Jahana Hayes’ husband’s first name is Milford.