Former National Teacher of the Year now running for Congress

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(WATERBURY, Conn.) -- In some cases, courage is contagious.

That was the case for Jahana Hayes, a longtime teacher who decided to make her first foray into professional politics.

Hayes told ABC News that the wave of new candidates running for office across the country without formal political experience “gave me the courage to say, ‘You know what, maybe I will say yes this time.’”

Hayes, who gained country-wide attention in 2016 when she was named National Teacher of the Year and awarded the associated crystal apple statuette by then-President Obama, said that the flood of people running for office this year, in spite of a lack of political experience, helped motivate her to run.

She said that she had been approached “by folks in my community” to run for other positions in the past, including state senator and various executive offices in the state. But this time, when Rep. Elizabeth Etsy announced that she wouldn’t be seeking re-election, “it was just different.”

She said she saw so many candidates across the country “bucking the trend that you have to check off all these boxes before you’re even considered to be viable” and it helped give her “the courage for me to stand up this time.”

One of the people who gave her encouragement to throw her hat in the ring was Sen. Chris Murphy, who Hayes called “a tremendous advocate.” Murphy hasn’t issued a formal endorsement in the 5th District’s race – and because of the state’s Democratic Party rules based on delegate counts from the party's nominating convention, Hayes’ opponent Mary Glassman got the party’s endorsement – but his office confirmed to ABC News that he did encourage Hayes to run for Congress.

Hayes and Glassman are running for an open seat, but Glassman has decades of experience in Connecticut politics, having served as a selectman and nominee for the lieutenant governor twice.

“There's an appetite for change,” Hayes said.

Hayes, 45, is one of a growing number of teachers now running for office, including some in states where drops in teacher funding prompted frustrated teachers into political action.

The mom-of-four, who is married to a detective, said that she is “concerned” by the current administration, pointing to the country’s immigration policy (which she said “is really one that tears me apart”), healthcare, and foreign relations as areas of change that have been particularly troubling.

“I think that everything is about timing and I think that I probably would not have seriously considered this four years ago,” she said.

Like so many others who have decided to turn to politics, her personal narrative is a big part of how she feels a connection with voters. Hayes’ campaign website notes that she grew up in a Connecticut housing project, her family struggled with poverty and addiction, and after she got pregnant as a teen, "all hopes for any upward mobility seemed beyond her grasp."

Hayes’ work as a high school social studies teacher first brought her to the White House for the National Teaching Award presentation in 2016, but then brought her across the country. She said she visited 30 different states in the year after the award, as is custom for all recipients, and that helped expose her to the universal problems facing communities across the country.

“The things that I’m struggling with and the things that my students are struggling with and the things that we're struggling with in Waterbury [Connecticut] are not that different from the things that they're struggling with in Wisconsin or California,” she said.

After finishing her year-long stint as a national teachers ambassador of sorts, Hayes returned to her school district, working on teacher recruitment instead of in the classroom, and it’s a position she still holds.

“It’s difficult” working full time and running a campaign, she said, “and I could have probably taken a leave of absence... but the whole point of me doing this is to stress that everyone should get involved” in the political process.

She now has until the state’s Democratic primary is held on Aug. 14 to get enough support to beat out Glassman for a spot in the general election.

“I really have to get out there… to have face-to-face voter contact,” she said.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

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