Jahana Hayes wants to be heard.
Ms. Hayes, the 46-year-old former educator who was named “National Teacher of the Year” by President Barack Obama in 2016, is waging a strong grass-roots campaign in Tuesday’s tight primary for Connecticut’s Fifth Congressional District, where the embattled Democratic incumbent has chosen not to seek re-election.
If elected, Ms. Hayes would be the state’s first black Democrat to serve in Congress. A win in November would also represent the culmination of a life story that, she says, includes a stint of homelessness, a teen pregnancy and economic hardship as she grew up in Waterbury, Conn.
Ms. Hayes’s opponent, Mary Glassman, is a longtime local Democratic politician in the region, and is considered by many to be the front-runner in Tuesday’s primary election. But Ms. Hayes said her entire life has been an underdog story, and that she believes her policy positions — and her personal identity as a black woman — are necessary in the national Democratic Party.
She is backed by many of the same progressive organizations that supported insurgent progressive Democratic candidates, including New York City’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ( who won her primary ) and Michigan’s Abdul El-Sayed ( who did not ).
In an interview, Ms. Hayes discussed her campaign, the difficulties of being a first-time candidate, and why she believes that, come Tuesday, she could shock the political world.
The following is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.
Q: You’ve never held or run for public office before. Why did you decide to get into this race?
A: I think we’re in a critically important time. And it’s going to require regular people, community people — the people that are most affected by decisions that are being made — for us to stand up and make our voices heard.
I feel like I’m at a point in my life where I have a responsibility to speak up for my community. We need someone who will speak to what’s happening in public education, what’s happening on our borders, what’s happening to our organized labor unions — because all these people who work every day and contribute in our community and feel like they’re left out of the conversation.
And what about yourself or your experiences makes you uniquely suited to tackle these issues?
I think that I can speak with fidelity to a lot of the challenges that people in my district face. It’s my life story, my journey, just having lived in the community in so many different ways. Going from public housing to being homeless, to a homeowner, to a single mom, and to a two-parent professional household, I have some insight to the challenges many of our families are facing — not because I’ve reached out, but because I’ve lived it.
I think I have been able to mobilize communities of people who had kind of just taken on a very passive role in our government.
You said you were homeless. When?
Well, when I was younger, with my mom, we lost our apartment, and that’s how I went to live with my grandmother. My mom struggled with addiction, my grandmother raised me, I was a teenage mom — all these things that traditionally would have caused people to disengage from their communities. I can say my community stood up and helped me rise out of that.
When I became an adult, I really made my mission to pour back into my community, to get involved and to advocate for programs to come back and help people. But while affecting the lives of people in my community one person at a time was good, I think that I can have a more meaningful impact by ensuring that those values and beliefs are memorialized in law.
Image President Barack Obama awarded Ms. Hayes the “National Teacher of the Year” title in 2016. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times What did you think of some of those teachers strikes that happened in Oklahoma and West Virginia earlier this year?
I was so proud of my colleagues. Teachers are always looked at as if we’re not very political and everything is about students and student outcomes, but I think what people forget is that teaching is also a profession. We work really hard for this profession, and we need to be treated as professionals.
You’d be the first nonwhite Democratic representative from Connecticut. How does that history, and your own identity, play into your campaign?
It absolutely plays into everything. Because while I see myself as someone who can be a representative of all people, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it would be important to so many people in my community. So many people in this state, and not just blacks, but for all people who want to show that we are a community that welcomes everyone.
I hear from people every day. They’re so inspired by what I’m doing. Young girls are saying, “I see myself in you.” And if I were able to pull this off, and we can bring that narrative to Connecticut — that no matter who you are and where you come from, that you have a message and a voice that’s important and you’re welcome here. I’ve seen how empowering that can be.
Your platform mentions fighting racism and sexism, issues that are so structural in American society. How does one do that from a seat in Congress?
I’m a person who, first of all, lives by example, and I always want to be modeling that behavior.
But I come from a profession that’s not about blame-placing. I don’t care who is responsible for the problem, let’s work toward solutions. And I’ve always been able to do that in a very respectful way. I get fired up about this — it’s not that hard to have a conversation when you commit to being respectful to everyone in the room.
I’m a black woman. I am unapologetically proud of who I am and where I come from. And I’m helping people understand that that, too, can be part of the narrative. But that’s not all I am. You know, I’m so many other things. So let’s talk about it.
Does the Democratic Party do enough to encourage minority candidates, or someone from an atypical background like teaching, to get more involved?
On one level, the party does encourage people to come out, and they’re sending a message that we need to step up and get involved. But on the other hand, when people do step up, we have to welcome them in … I’ve had people in the party who have said, “You don’t have the experience.”
There’s an appetite for change. People are hungry for something different. And I think that the party leadership has to hear that and begin to adjust accordingly.
Has that been the hardest part, convincing your own party of your viability? What’s been the hardest part?
Raising money. Just getting your name out there. There were people who said: “You’ll never be able to do this. You don’t have the name recognition. You don’t have the political network. You don’t have the money people.”
And these were people inside Connecticut Democratic politics?
Yes. They’d say, “I can’t imagine you as a viable candidate.” People said to me, “You know, the people in the cities don’t vote,” or, “Connecticut is very traditionally Democrat,” and I’d say, “So am I,” and they’d say, “No, that’s not what that means.”
Are they talking about race there?
You know, I’m not sure. But that’s what they say. I just think that some people were very uncomfortable about seeing politics in a very different way — especially from someone who did not have a political background. They couldn’t see a teacher — you know, just a teacher — running for Congress.