Waterbury — Jahana Hayes, a progressive political newcomer, declared victory Tuesday night over her Republican opponent in the 5th Congressional District, assuming her place as the first African-American woman to represent Connecticut in Congress.
Hayes, a Democrat, declared victory over former Meriden Mayor Manny Santos shortly before 11 p.m., with less than half of the vote officially counted. Santos initially called the speech premature, but called Hayes after midnight to say, according to Hayes, “It looks like you’ve won.”
Santos, an underfunded business owner, could not compete with the appeal and energy and campaign fund of the 2016 National Teacher of the Year.
As an excited crowd in Waterbury chanted her name and cheered raucously, Hayes tearfully addressed her supporters.
“Yesterday marked 50 years since Shirley Chisholm was elected as the first African-American woman to go to Congress,” Hayes said. “Today we made history … this history teacher is making history.”
“I want to tell you when I started this I knew I couldn’t do it alone,” she said. “… You know who I am. You know what I stand for. You know what I believe in but the votes show that you also believe that we are so much better together.”
On Tuesday evening, before the results were announced, Santos said, “we did a lot more than most people expected with the limited funds we did have.”
When asked if he would have done anything differently during his campaign, he said, “I don’t think so” but added that will be doing a thorough review of his campaign after the election.
Hayes was a formidable rival. She attracted support in the state and national attention that helped her raise more than $1.5 million to fund a whirlwind campaign that began in May, when Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District announced she would not seek re-election.
The former history teacher will be one of two African-Americans representing states in New England, along with Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts, who recently came to Connecticut to campaign with Hayes.
Hayes is also unusual in another way. She will be one of the few members of Congress to come from a low-income background. Hayes grew up in poverty in Waterbury, living in public housing with her grandmother while her mother struggled with addiction. At the age of 17, she gave birth to her daughter.
Hayes attributed her family’s survival to government safety net programs – and her successes to teachers who helped her finish an interrupted high school education and go on to college.
In Waterbury Tuesday night, her cousin, Bridget Robinson, said she was proud of Hayes, as a large crowd danced and waited for results.
“It’s a proud moment for the family,” said Robinson, 48, of Waterbury, who grew up with Hayes. “If she was out here, she’d be right here dancing.”
Hayes has often said “education saved my life.”
During her speech on Tuesday night, Hayes said everything in her life happened exactly how it was supposed to.
“I am honored to be your next congresswoman,” she said. ” … I got you.”
Will Love, 39, of Danbury, said Hayes is a “breath of fresh air. She’s exactly what we need in Congress.”
“Jahana is the new face of Congress,” he said.
Gary Rose, head of the political science department at Sacred Heart University, said Hayes’ personal story, told first in a compelling You Tube video and then in campaign ads,”resonated with a lot of people.”
“Winning the (2016) National Teacher of the Year award also helped,” Rose said. “A lot of voters are interested in education.”
Rose said voters were also attracted to Hayes, because she is “a unique candidate.” She conducted an energetic, largely positive campaign based on the importance or education and the government’s role in helping those in need.
“Her enthusiasm was also contagious,” Rose said.
Meanwhile, Santos ran as a conservative who supported most of President Donald Trump’s policies, including the president’s hard-line stance on immigration.
“I don’t think playing the Trump card was all that advantageous in the 5th District,” Rose said.
The sprawling 5th District, which encompasses much of the western part of the state and includes 41 cities and towns.
The 5th District was considered a “swing “ district, since it was once represented by Republicans, including former Reps. Nancy Johnson and Gary Franks, the first African American to represent Connecticut in Congress.
But the district has become more Democratic since then.
Hayes hadn’t planned to trade the schoolhouse for Congress. She was encouraged to run by Sen. Chris Murphy, who held the seat when he was in the U.S. House of Representatives and who aided her campaign.
Hayes said Murphy, who is eager to promote diversity in Connecticut Democratic politics, had spoken to her for a long time about engaging more in the community. When the rare chance to run for an open congressional seat came up, Hayes seized the opportunity.
Former Vice President Joe Biden also made a last-minute pitch for Hayes during a campaign stop in the state that was also meant to boost the candidacy of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont. Hayes also had the backing of key labor unions, including the National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.
When she is sworn in to office in January, Hayes will be part of a large freshman class that includes many political outsiders.
Not surprisingly, she has said she want to be involved in education policy in Congress.
Hayes lives in Wolcott with her husband, Milford Hayes, who is a city police detective. She has four children, the youngest is 10 years old and the others are adults.