“Contrary to what we see, all of the riots are not violent.”

U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, says she clearly misspoke, using the word “riots” when she meant protests in a radio interview in June, when she talked about seeing some hope in the street demonstrations. Her Republican opponent, David X. Sullivan, says all he knows is what she said, not what she meant.

The audio clip from the interview is the centerpiece of Sullivan’s first commercial, setting Hayes’s smiling face and her voice over video clips of street violence, clashes with police and a building and vehicle engulfed in flames.

The commercial was released Tuesday as President Donald J. Trump was traveling to Kenosha, Wis., a city torn by civil unrest after the police shooting of a Black man and the fatal shooting of two protesters, allegedly by a 17-year-old white teen who identified with police.

It is a provocative piece, but one unlikely to see airwaves any time soon, given the resources of Sullivan’s campaign. As of June 30, the campaign had raised $210,000 in contributions and had $109,000 in available cash.

“This is a page right out of the Trump playbook, to try to paint me as someone who supports civil unrest,” said Hayes, a former national teacher of the year and the wife of a Waterbury police detective.

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She was elected in 2018, the first Black woman elected to Congress from Connecticut and one of the first two elected from New England. 

Sullivan, a former federal prosecutor, criticized Hayes’ comments made on a June 27 radio appearance in a press release two days later. He declined to say whether he really thought that Hayes believed there are non-violent riots or that she misspoke.

“She’s had every opportunity to explain herself, and I think it really comes down to say what you mean and mean what you say,” Sullivan said. “So, I think you have to ask her that question.”

Hayes, the former teacher, said the premise of Sullivan’s commercial was sophomoric, a  reminder of school kids who will endlessly and gleefully repeat someone’s mistake. 

“Riots by definition are violent,” Hayes said. “I remember a couple of months ago when I made this statement that he kept repeating it over and over. I clearly misspoke.”

Hayes said the Sullivan campaign also tweaked her on Twitter when she referred to a television news anchor by the wrong name.

“I’m like, really?” she said. “It just seems so juvenile.”

More serious are the efforts by each candidate to identify their opponent by the positions and tactics of others. 

Sullivan has tried since becoming a candidate 14 months ago to associate Hayes with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the fiery liberal Democrat elected in 2018 at age 29. Hayes has largely ignored the underfunded Sullivan, but noted Tuesday the similarity of Sullivan’s jibes against her with Trump’s against Joe Biden.

Trump says Biden is too tolerant of rioters and would defund police. The president’s first point is an opinion, the second is a falsehood. Sullivan said his belief that Hayes has not been forceful enough in denounced rioting or the vandalism directed against a Columbus statute in Waterbury has nothing to do with Trump or Biden.

“I’m not hearing anything from Jahana Hayes,” said Sullivan, who joined police at the State Capitol protesting a police accountability bill passed in Connecticut in July. “Whatever Joe Biden is doing in his basement, that’s up to Joe Biden. What I’m concerned about is what is Jahana Hayes doing, what she’s not saying.”

Without accusing her of favoring defunding police, Sullivan has tried to tie her that movement. In the press release issued two days after Hayes made the riot remark, Sullivan contrasted his vision with “what Jahana Hayes, The Squad and the extreme Far Left Democrats want.”

He said Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the The Squad, a reference to four women of color elected in 2018, favor defunding police, without directly claiming Hayes holds that position. Hayes is not a member of The Squad.

“I do not support defunding the police,” Hayes said. “I want my husband to come home safely, just like everyone else.”

Hayes said she does favor finding more resources to shift some of the burden for addiction and mental health challenges from police to community programs, but not at the expense of police.

The congresswoman and her challenger will have to opportunity to confront each other in October. Hayes said she has agreed to four debates and two community forums, the first a League of Women Voters event on Oct. 5.

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Mark PazniokasCapitol Bureau Chief

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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