by Jane C. Timm / Aug.18.2018 / 8:03 AM EDT
The day after Justice Anthony Kennedy announced he was retiring and opening up a second Supreme Court seat for President Donald Trump to fill, one of Jahana Hayes’ ex-students got in her car and drove four hours to volunteer for her former teacher’s congressional campaign.
“She said, ‘I realized I have never had to fight for a woman’s right to choose,’” Hayes told NBC News, days after the 2016 National Teacher of the Year secured a decisive victory in Connecticut’s 5th district Democratic primary. “She volunteered all day, then drove back to Philadelphia. I couldn’t believe it when she walked through the door.”
Hayes’ campaign was full of such moments.
The first-time candidate, who kept working full-time throughout her bid, mobilized a small army of volunteers that included 100 former students to power her to victory over the state party-backed candidate in just 102 days of campaigning.
She is one of the dozens of Democratic women running and winning their primary bids this year, with many embracing their gender and sometimes painful personal histories while out-performing establishment, often male, opponents. If she wins in November, Hayes will be the state’s first black Democrat in Congress.
Hayes, 45, said she believes it was her personal journey from single teenage mother who needed help from her community to an educator and volunteer who contributes to it that resonated with voters.
She grew up in a Waterbury, Connecticut, housing project. Her mother struggled with drug addiction, and after Hayes became pregnant at 17, she raised her daughter alone. She got herself through university, and started teaching history where her ability to connect with students earned her accolades and eventually statewide and national recognition.
“Jahana inspires her students to give back. I think she understands that actually sometimes the less you have, the more valuable it is to see yourself giving, because that shows you the power and the influence that you can bring to bear on the world around you,” President Barack Obama said, announcing her 2016 Teacher of the Year award.
Hayes spent 15 years teaching history and government, and now works training teachers in the Waterbury public schools. She never considered politics until the Trump era, which left her sitting in front of her television frustrated by the state of the nation — “like everyone else,” she said — and wondering what she could do.