Torrington — Mary Glassman unequivocally supported Israel, while Jahana Hayes called the question complicated. Hayes embraced federal legalization of marijuana, while Glassman called it a state issue. But mainly, the two Democratic candidates for Connecticut’s only open congressional seat disagreed Monday night on what message their victory would send.
Hayes, who is vying to become the first black Democrat elected to Congress from this state, repeatedly and at times passionately cast her candidacy in terms of race, class and opportunity, pointing to the all-white gallery of multiple generations of Torrington leaders pictured on the wall in the city council chamber where they debated, calling them symbolic of state politics.
“I noticed those pictures on the wall, and it’s not lost on me what representation in this state looks like,” Hayes said. “I couldn’t find me in those pictures. There are so many people in our communities that can’t find themselves in those pictures. Representative democracy is about all people having a voice and coming to the table and sharing what they know with the 435 other members so that they move forward.”
Glassman, a former local elected official and legislative aide at the State Capitol, said she would go to Washington intent on fighting President Trump, yet eager to join U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, as the member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers coalition.
“I think we need more problem solvers,” Glassman said.
Hayes and Glassman are competing for the Democratic nomination in the 5th Congressional District, which covers the western third of the state, covering the small and mid-sized cities of Danbury, Waterbury, Meriden, New Britain and Torrington, the suburbs of the Farmington Valley and the rural communities of Litchfield County.
They debated before a standing-room audience at least four times greater than the turnout for a Republican debate in the same room a month ago. Hayes was greeted by a mini-rally outside city hall, while a smaller group gathered to support Glassman, who narrowly won the party’s convention endorsement in May.
Glassman and Hayes each grew up in trying circumstances, Glassman in New Britain and Hayes in Waterbury. Glassman was four when her father died, leaving her mother as a 35-year-old widow. Hayes, whose mother was a drug addict, herself became a single mother as a 17-year-old.
Glassman became a lawyer, going to the University of Connecticut at night, and then entered politics, winning election as the first selectman of Simsbury, a GOP-leaning suburb of Hartford, and twice running for lieutenant governor in 2006 and 2010. Hayes advanced from community college to a four-year school and finally graduate school, becoming an educator.
Hayes, chosen national teacher of the year in 2016, was lauded at the White House by President Obama in a moment that is central to a new campaign video that makes a call for diversity. It closes with Hayes saying, “If Congress starts to look like us, no one can stop us.”
She was encouraged to run by U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, who wrested the seat from Republican Nancy Johnson in 2006. Glassman has had fundraising help from U.S. Reps. Rosa L. DeLauro of the 3rd District and John B. Larson of the 1st.
Anne C. Dranginis, a retired Appellate Court judge who moderated the debate, said she was pleased that Democrats would be nominating a woman for the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty. Women hold just under 20 percent of the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“It is and continues to be a long, hard climb for equality,” Dranginis said.
Few issues separate Glassman and Hayes, though two emerged Monday night.
Hayes had no clear answer to an audience question about whether the candidates would stand with the rest of the delegation in support of Israel. “This is a very complicated question,” Hayes said “I wouldn’t make a decision without all of the information.”
“I would be a strong supporter, along with the rest of the delegation, for Israel,” Glassman said.
And they differed when asked if they would support legalizing marijuana as a matter of federal law.
“Yes, I do,” said Hayes, whose husband is a Waterbury police detective. She smiled and added, “Because the criminalization of marijuana disproportionately affects a certain group of people that look like someone at the table.”
The audience laughed and applauded.
Glassman said she would oppose federal legalization.
In response to a question about whether she could compromise on the issue of Trump’s demand for a wall on the southern border if it led to a workable immigration policy, Hayes said she saw Trump’s fixation on the southern border in racial terms.
“I think the idea of building a wall is absurd,” Hayes said. “Let’s call it for what it is. It’s racist.”
Glassman said she never would compromise on Trump’s approach to immigration enforcement, especially his separation of children from their parents.
“We are creating a next generation of children who hate our country,” she said.
Hayes, who lives in Wolcott, dismissed one of Glassman’s achievements in Simsbury: Starting construction of a bike path that eventually became a regional rail trail.
“What about kids who don’t have a bike?” Hayes asked. “What about families that don’t have access to those same opportunities? Don’t they deserve a voice as well? That’s what Connecticut has to look like. Congress should not just look like politicians or doctors or lawyers. It should be everybody.”