When Rep. Elizabeth Esty announced in April that she was not seeking re-election to her seat in the 5th Congressional District, it provided an opportunity for a new person to join Connecticut’s delegation in the House of Representatives. The two candidates for the seat are Democrat Jahana Hayes, an award-winning teacher and political neophyte, and Republican Manny Santos, a business consultant and former mayor of Meriden.
The 5th District covers six municipalities in Fairfield County — Bethel, Brookfield, Danbury, New Fairfield, Newtown and Sherman — along with localities in Litchfield, Hartford and New Haven counties. The district came about following the 2000 U.S. Census, when Connecticut’s shrinking population resulted in the loss of the 6th District and the merger of that territory with the 5th District. Republican Nancy Johnson won the 2002 election for the newly blended district and was re-elected two years later, but lost in 2006 to Chris Murphy. Murphy left to successfully pursue the U.S. Senate in 2012, with Esty taking the seat and holding it for three terms. She was planning to run for a fourth term, but criticism of her handling of a sexual harassment scandal involving her former chief of staff led her to bow out of the race.
Both Hayes and Santos scored primary victories to earn their candidacies. Hayes fended off the state Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate, Simsbury First Selectman Mary Glassman, while Santos overcame Ruby O’Neill, the Southbury-based founder of the National Latino Republican Coalition, and Rich Dupont, a Watertown-based business consultant. Hayes and Santos face a voter population that is approximately 30 percent Democrat, 25 percent Republican and 45 percent unaffiliated. And while Hillary Clinton carried Connecticut in 2016 by roughly 13.6 percent, she only won the 5th District by a slender 5 percent margin.
JAHANA HAYES: MOVING OUT OF THE CLASSROOM
Jahana Hayes is a former Waterbury high school history teacher who received national attention when she was recognized in 2016 by President Barack Obama as Teacher of the Year. This campaign marks Hayes’ first foray into seeking elected office, and her candidacy has a historic dimension as she would be the first African-American woman to represent Connecticut on Capitol Hill. The 5th District also hosted Connecticut’s first — and, to date, only — African-American federal legislator, Republican Gary Franks, who served from 1991 to 1997.
Yet Hayes made it clear that she was not seeking votes simply to make history. “I want people to vote for me because I am the right person to send to Congress,” she said. “People want to hear what I have to say and what I can offer. I’m working for votes. I am not taking anything for granted.”
Hayes stated that in her conversations with voters, it is difficult not to recognize a strong sense of frustration with how Washington operates. “It comes out loud and clear that people are fatigued by negativity and the lack of progress from both sides of the aisle,” she said. “I’ve had people say to me that they don’t mind paying taxes as long as the money is spent responsibly and the community will benefit.”
Hayes was not supportive of last year’s Tax Cut and Jobs Act because she felt Connecticut was among “the net losers” in the legislation’s benefits. “Many of the deductions that Connecticut people relied on were removed in the tax cuts,” she said, stressing that she would welcome revising the bill so it would be “equitable for everyone and not hurt Connecticut.”
She also expressed concern regarding the Trump administration’s approach to trade, particularly in its use of tariffs against allied nations and major trading partners.
“Business owners, farmers and corporations are being affected negatively,” she warned. “And relationships that took decades to build are being impacted. We have a standing in the world and I don’t want to lose the respect of our allies.”
However, Hayes acknowledged that she would be willing to revisit the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare.
“Everyone agrees that it could be improved,” she said. “It did help the uninsured and the underinsured. But it also created an affordability burden for many people, and that needs to be looked at. Also, there is not enough competition in the market, especially in Connecticut.”
One priority that Hayes would like to pursue involves creating a federal and state partnership that would establish Connecticut as a clean energy hub, both in the production of renewables and in training the next generation workforce in this sector.
“We need to redefine the education system so students can find success in work through career training and internships that highlight the value in hard work,” she said. “And we need to fill jobs for the economy that exists today, especially for coding and manufacturing jobs.”
If there is an area where Hayes is not eager to venture, it would be the continuation of the partisan divisions that have split Washington. She reported that Republican voters have reached out to her in support of her candidacy, and she is eager to lay the groundwork of a new bipartisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill.
“I am willing to listen and collaborate,” she said, noting that some detractors have attempted to portray her as “an extreme progressive. I’m progressive on some issues and centrist on others.”
Hayes pointed out that the attention given to her campaign has inspired teachers to become more politically active outside of the classroom. “Friends who are teachers in other states told me that they are thinking about pursuing local offices, board committees and spots up and down the ballot,” she said.
MANNY SANTOS: A BUSINESS-ORIENTED FOCUS
Unlike Hayes, Santos is no stranger to running for office. In 2013, he became the first Republican to be elected mayor of Meriden after 30 years of Democratic control. However, his time in the leadership spotlight was brief. He lost re-election to independent candidate Kevin Scarpati in 2015 by a 78-vote margin and was unsuccessful in his bid to get on the Meriden City Council in 2017.
Santos, who was born in Portugal and served in the U.S. Marines during Operation Desert Storm, works as a business consultant focused on improving corporate staffing and production. He declared his candidacy for the 5th Congressional District before Esty withdrew from the race, and if he wins in November, he will be the first Republican member of the state’s congressional delegation since Christopher Shays was voted out of office in 2008.
“Back when I declared my candidacy in February, I knew this 5th District was winnable by a Republican with the policies and the agenda that would benefit taxpayers in this district,” he said.
Santos noted that the main issue that dominates his conversations with voters involves the economy, particularly how Connecticut compares with the rest of the nation. “Individuals my age or a little bit older are actively thinking of leaving the state because of the high costs of continuing to stay here,” he said. “There are job opportunities in other states, so finding jobs is not an issue. Frankly, the only reason so many people stay is proximity to family. Otherwise, a lot of them would have moved out.”
Santos credited the Tax Cut and Jobs Act as being “responsible for a lot of the recovery going on right now” at a national level. If Connecticut is not sharing this good fortune, he added, that is due to the state’s economic problems and the inability of Hartford legislators to enact positive change.
“We see the conditions that this state has been in, and the Democrat policies that gave us one tax increase after another plus high regulations,” he continued. “Businesses are not coming to Connecticut. We are at the bottom of almost every category, and this state had not recovered all of the jobs it lost in recession.”
If elected, Santos pledged not to support any tax increases and to work on bringing federal spending down. “This last budget had more spending than the president asked for and that kind of stuff has to stop.”
Santos offered his support for President Trump’s trade policies, particularly the rewriting of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in favor of the United States—Mexico—Canada Agreement. He expressed unhappiness over what he considered to be trade agreements that supported foreign economies at the expense of American workers.
“I lost my job because of NAFTA,” he recalled. “I was working at a tier-one auto supplier in Cheshire and I had to train my replacement from Mexico. We trained them so we could lose our jobs.”
While acknowledging that the Trump trade policies, especially tariffs, have yet to produce immediate results, he stressed that time was the nation’s ally in this matter. “For decades, everybody has complained about our trade imbalances, but very little has been done,” he said, adding that Trump has “taken another look at it from a business standpoint. We have to remain strong. Initially, it is difficult and it is going to be painful, but in the long run it is better for the American worker if we have trade agreements that benefit Americans.”
On immigration, Santos supports the Trump policy on the southern border, bemoaning that “it is inexcusable we don’t already have a solution in place for either the wall or some sort of enhanced monitoring.” As for the illegal immigrants brought to this country by their parents as children or infants, he recommended a permanent residency status that would not include the ability to seek citizenship, which he felt would encourage law-breaking.
Santos praised the president’s policies as being “dead-on for this country,” though he said he would challenge any policies that he considered misdirected. He also declined to comment directly on the president’s leadership style, commenting, “I’m not going to Washington to keep track on his Twitter account or how he speaks. He’s his own man and that’s his own office.”
Santos believed that a key element to election victory will be the support of the local business community. “They want to see representation in Washington that is looking out for their interests,” he said.