Hayes Underscores the Right to Abortion, Small Farms, Easing the Path for Immigration in Run for Re-Election to Congress

Congresswoman Jahana Hayes


TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

Incumbent Democratic Congresswoman Jahana Hayes, first elected to Connecticut’s 5th District in 2018 with 56 percent of the vote, is facing off against Republican challenger George Logan to represent the district that includes much of the western portion of the state.

Hayes spoke with CT Examiner about the federal government’s role in providing funding to school districts to help students get caught up academically and deal with the emotional effects of the pandemic. She also discussed the need to help small farmers with the cost of environmentally-friendly practices and support the local market for their products. She talked about improvements that needed to be made in the immigration system, including steps that would better facilitate legal entry. 

Hayes also spoke about her position on Dobbs v. Jackson and her belief that Congress should codify the right to abortion into federal law, and noted the need for investments in policing, services for victims and community intervention services to make people feel safer in their communities. 

Hayes worked as a public school history teacher in Waterbury for 15 years, and has won state-level and national awards for her teaching, including National Teacher of the Year in 2016. In the House of Representatives, she served on the Education and Labor Committee and the Agriculture Committee. She has a bachelor’s degree in history from Southern Connecticut State University and a master’s degree in curriculum from the University of St. Joseph. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

CTEx: What are the issues that you believe to be most important for the fifth district in Connecticut?

Hayes: Well, I think there’s several issues, and this is what I’ve tried to talk to people about over the last two years — that there’s so many intersections between the things that people care about. I mean, obviously the economy is a big deal for the people in this district. But in order to address the economy, we also have to address things like childcare and living wages, affordable housing. I’ve heard from people that protecting our democracy is a very important issue for them. That women’s reproductive health is very important. That climate mitigation issues are very important. When you represent this district, you really have to be broad and expansive and make sure that you are educating yourself on all the things that people care about.

In the Northwest corner, I have a farming community who is really concerned about the next farm bill, and in the cities I have people who have different concerns. So just really having a pulse on all of those things is what I’m trying to do moving forward. 

CTEx: What do you see as the federal government’s role in making affordable housing available in Connecticut? 

Hayes: I think the government can offer incentives or grants or just help some communities to make units available. We were able to do that in several communities throughout the state when we did community projects, to get some of the funding for that — to offer some of the assistance. As part of the American Rescue Plan, there was money for rural homeowners that provided direct mortgage programs. There were fair housing commissions, and grants in counseling to help people to be able to get mortgages in some of these places or even to get rental units. So there’s a lot of things that the federal government can do when we talk about fair housing.

CTEx: What is the federal government’s role in improving education in Connecticut?

Hayes: I think we saw a lot of that during the pandemic. There was a separate pot of money for education agencies that was separate and apart from the American Rescue Plan. Especially for me in this district —  I had school districts that didn’t have working HVAC systems, that needed physical repairs, that didn’t have broadband or internet connectivity, that are understaffed and having a difficult time hiring staff. The federal government can help in all of those ways. Locally, that’s where curriculums are decided, that’s where people are hired. But the federal government can absolutely offer assistance in these areas. 

And we saw that during the pandemic, much of the American Rescue Plan funds were used for PPE, were used to open schools safely. There was a lot of talk about people wanting schools to open, but the federal government is where the resources were provided to do that. So there’s a lot that the federal government can do in that area.

Actually, I had legislation, the Safe Education Jobs Act that was passed into law to make sure that we were not eliminating social workers, school psychologists, all those support staff that generally are the first to go when school districts have budget shortages. So funding is a big thing, but also directing where that funding goes as we are looking forward to where we go from here and closing the academic gaps.

The federal government can provide resources for those wraparound services, for those afterschool programs, for tutoring programs to offer one-on-one programs — really intense programs in our schools in the hardest hit areas to get kids back up to their academic levels. There’s a lot that the federal government can do when we talk about education in the space of academic recovery.

I want to really make sure that we are thinking about infusing the pipeline, making sure educators have the support that they need so that we have some really strong people in our schools. This is something that I’ve talked a lot about because on my committee, and especially now with some of the conversation around student loan forgiveness, everyone says, “Well, you can go to a trade school or you can be a plumber or carpenter.” And while all those things are true — I mean I’ve passed legislation for the National Apprenticeship Act for Youth Build for America to make sure that we have those types of trade opportunities — I also recognize that in some of our poorest communities, we need good teachers. We need nurses. We need social workers. We need jobs that require a college education. 

And we need people from those communities to be interested in those jobs. We can’t always import those people from outside. So lowering the cost of higher education, providing incentives for professionals to work in our most marginalized communities, diversifying the profession, supporting our state schools — there’s so many things that we can do. Grow-your-own programs, federal investments to grow-your-own programs so that we have people who come out of these communities who have the support to not only be recruited, but also to be retained in these districts. I think that’s the way that we look at education moving forward — closing some of these equity gaps.

The fifth district has some of the highest performing boarding schools in the world and some of the lowest performing public schools. During the pandemic, I had schools that literally within two days were completely virtual because they had always had hybrid courses, and I had districts where seven months later kids still didn’t have laptops. I think we need to really take all those lessons and try to be better than we were in 2020 and not go back to that space. 

And I just will say in the space of education, there’s this idea that we just decided to close schools all of a sudden, and that is completely flawed. A million people had died. We were trying to save lives. Even though we’re looking at the data and it doesn’t look like a lot of children died, I can tell you that in my community, the parents of those children, the grandparents, the neighbors, the friends of those children died. 

It was a really traumatic experience. So we need to make sure that we have those wraparound services when kids return, that we are really having intense tutoring and services to close that huge gap that was there. But also recognizing that, in that moment, when we had a global pandemic, the likes of which we had never seen before, we didn’t know what was going on. We didn’t want kids to die. So to say now, “Democrats closed schools” is just crazy to me. 

CTEx: What do you think needs to change with immigration and how Congress handles immigration policy?

Hayes: We need to address the larger challenge of immigration. I hear on the news every day that people are presenting themselves illegally at the border, and actually they are following the law as it is written. When you seek asylum, you present yourself at the border and you make your case. We have to make sure that we have more agents to process these cases — that we can process visas more efficiently and effectively. That people are not overstaying their visa or operating outside of the terms. 

I’ve heard from both the small farmers, the greenhouses, the restaurants, many small businesses in this area how they need immigrants. They rely on immigrants. Many of these places have had the same families work year to year who are not looking for American citizenship. They work during the season and they go home. So they need a reliable pathway so that they can plan ahead. That’s part of our problem. We in Congress need to address immigration as a whole, to have a pathway to citizenship so that people can map it out. 

I’ve helped people in my office who have had pending court appearances for 10 years, and this is just how slow and archaic the system is working. We need to modernize the immigration system. We need to make sure that we are keeping track of the people who are in this country, that we have a process where they can go to court, where they can apply for citizenship, where they can follow all the steps that are necessary. But right now, that process is so convoluted that even the people who are trying to follow the rules really don’t know what the next step is.

An easy [change] is a pathway to citizenship for dreamers — really solidifying that process. Changing who can sponsor someone as an immigrant. It’s a very short list of family members who can sponsor someone who is traveling to this country. And for a lot of people, they don’t have a nuclear family that they’re coming [to]. It might be a cousin, it might be an aunt, it might be someone more extended of a family. So really just looking at changing the way that list works.

I’ve had people who reach out to my office who are paying taxes. They are working, they are here, and they’re just trying to get an appointment for their case to be heard. So making sure that those offices are fully staffed with people to process these applications quickly so that people can at least get a resolution. So if their case is denied and they can’t stay, they know that and they’re not waiting for years and years in queue. 

CTEx: What can the federal government do, or what would you like to see it do, to make healthcare more affordable and also accessible for people?

Hayes: Well, I think we just started that. The Inflation Reduction Act, with negotiating the cost of prescription drugs, was a huge start. We have some of the highest drug prices in the world for the same drugs, and when you look at how companies are using their profits, it’s not going back into research, which everyone argues. Much of it is going to profits.

Republicans literally voted against allowing private insurers to do the same and right now it’s just restricted to Medicare. So I think that we need to expand that to private insurers. We need to put more subsidies in place so that insurance is affordable. That even helps small businesses who have employees that need health insurance. 

I think that Community Health Centers and a lot of what we did during the pandemic to meet people where they are in their communities, but also making sure that people have preventative screenings and health checks so that they’re not presenting themselves for the first time when they have a crisis.

The cost of healthcare in this country is way too expensive. Way too expensive. I’m a person who entered this space in favor of a system like Medicare for All with public options, but it’s anything that we can do right now, anything that will work.

So I voted for the Affordable Care Act subsidies. I voted to get vaccines out to everyone regardless of immigration status, because I recognize that everybody in the community needs to be safe. I voted for expanded funds to Community Health Centers, but this is a serious issue I’m hearing from my constituents. 

As many of our specialized physicians are retiring, who is going to serve in our highest needs communities? What does Medicare reimbursement look like? There are a lot of people who are just saying they’re avoiding the profession just because of all of the hoops that they have to jump through.

So making it affordable, making access easier and bringing healthcare and preventative healthcare into communities so that people are not going bankrupt because they’re catching illnesses too late. 

CTEx: What else needs to be done right now in terms of protecting the environment and also promoting green energy goals, particularly with the cost of fuel right now?

Hayes: I think we’re already behind the eight ball on that. This is the very first time we’ve had significant investments in the environment. $360 billion for everything from conservation to clean water. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, but building an infrastructure — I don’t think anyone expects that we’re going to turn on the light and everybody’s just going to go green. There are so many barriers.

The cost of, for instance, electric vehicles. The lack of a sustainable grid. All of that infrastructure has to be built up first so that it is more attractive for people to make some of these transitions. And I think that’s the work that we’re doing. We start making these small changes now so that moving forward we can lower our emissions, we can offer incentives for schools or federal buildings to, I don’t know, get solar panels — to do all these things. We just got legislation — there’s a grant program in Simsbury. They got an electric bus. There are some other districts that got electric buses. But there are things that we can do — moving our postal service — where as a federal goal we are beginning to transition so that long-term, we’re at least moving in the right direction.

This idea that it’s not enough — yes, that’s probably accurate, but we can’t continue to do nothing. What we just did with the Inflation Reduction Act is the most significant climate investment that we’ve ever seen in this country. So what we have to do is continue to build upon that, not just say “It’s not enough. It doesn’t work.”

CTEx: What kinds of things are you trying to get done to address challenges to farms and agriculture? 

Hayes: In the same vein, climate smart practices are very, very important to the farmers in this district. A lot of these small farms have been locked out of federal funding because of the size. So making sure that small and family farmers are included, that greenhouses are included, that they have access to federal grants to help defray the cost of some of these climate-smart practices, some of these drought-resistant crops and seeds and different things that would really help make their businesses more efficient.

I have legislation on my committee to introduce farm-to-schools or scratch cooking programs to really partner our local farmers with our schools locally so that they have a market for many of their goods. Expanding the SNAP program so that people can use their benefits at farmer’s markets. So really just making sure that not only are we helping farmers to survive and thrive, but that locally there’s a market for the goods that they have. 

And I want to make sure that as we go into the next farm bill, it’s not just a conversation about large Midwestern farmers. That the people who I represent, their voices and their needs are included in a way that’s very different than it has been before.

I just had the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture in my district. And I made it very clear, I need for you to see what a farm in my district looks like and what challenges the people in my district have so that we can make sure that this is part of the conversation. 

CTEx: Another thing I wanted to ask you about is the federal government’s role is addressing crime. Are there key things that Congress needs to be doing? Are there things that you would like to see not happen? 

Hayes: Well, we just passed legislation that is meant to help law enforcement but also community partners with some of the issues surrounding crime.

One of the pieces that I am excited about is The Invest to Protect Act, which for departments that have less than 125 officers, it allows grants and incentives to recruit, retain, to offer bonuses, to keep people on. And that’s a majority of my district. I have lots of departments that have a dozen officers that really could use some help.

This package also offers mental health training for first responders. I think we’ve seen a lot of that — where there have been mental health crises that did not require incarceration, but probably could have been addressed with hospitalization, medication. So really making sure that as law enforcement show up to the scene that they have the support and the people who are able to deal with that — really addressing the root causes of crime with community-based intervention programs. What we voted for will allow funding for that. 

And then addressing the backlog for victims, making sure that some of these smaller departments and even some of the larger ones have the resources and partnerships with the federal government to close some of these open cases that involve homicide or violent crimes so that people feel safer in their communities. But again, I think the answer to the conversation about reducing crime is not just held by law enforcement or community partners. It’s making sure that people have good paying jobs and safe and affordable housing, that their kids are safe — because we see that oftentimes people who commit crimes are in desperate situations, or they didn’t get the intervention and the services that they needed before they got to that point. 

As a high school teacher, I saw many young people drift into the wrong lane and you feel like you can’t get them back. So it can’t just be about addressing crime after it happens, but also investing in solutions to the root causes of many of these things. And that is really the way I have tried to approach this work as a legislator in a very holistic way, recognizing that there’s an intersection and an overlap between all of these issues, and if we can, instead of just looking at the end result and how we got there, kind of work backwards and say, “What are all of the things that affected this outcome, and how can we intervene earlier to deter some of these things from happening?” 

CTEx: What do you think Congress should be doing right now in the wake of the Dobbs decision? 

Hayes: I think at the federal level we have to codify the language of Roe into law. I think that it should not be left up to the interpretation of a court or of an administration. And I also think that, as an elected official, I shouldn’t have any place in that decision. It really should be between a woman and her doctor. 

This is the first time that, really, a constitutionally protected right is challenged. So if we go back to that idea, I worry about interracial marriage or same-sex marriage or the right to contraception or some of the other things that were outlined in that decision, and it cannot be left to the interpretation of a court because, as the court changes, that interpretation may change.

So I really think that we need to call it to the floor for a vote, and it needs to be codified into law. This idea that all of these different exceptions and what is a qualifiable reason for an abortion or to get healthcare —  I just disagree with that strongly, because everyone has very different experiences.

Under this national abortion ban that was just presented in the Senate, if a woman finds out at 20 weeks that she has a septic uterus or something that she could have never expected, that shouldn’t have to go before a panel or be up to a legislator to decide. Those are deeply personal conversations between a woman and her doctor and to have that in limbo and always be on the chopping block, if you will, I think is wrong. I think it needs to be voted on. It needs to be passed. 

I think that this idea that it’s a patchwork of state-by-state laws was flawed. We tried that with some provisions of education, with some voting things, and it just opens up the door for patchwork solutions. If a woman from Connecticut is vacationing somewhere and something happens, will she have the same protections that she would have in Connecticut? So we just need to once and for all make this settled law. And it’s something that I believe is going to be on the ballot this year because I hear a lot of people talking about how afraid they are of that happening and many people who said they never imagined that they’d be fighting for this again in their lifetime, or that their children would have less rights than they had in the last 50 years.

CTEx: Outside forecasters had been rating the fifth District of Connecticut as one of the most likely in the state to flip from Democratic to Republican. Do you agree with that assessment and why do you think that these forecasters are saying that?

Hayes: The fifth district has always been a toss-up seat. It’s a district that you cannot win with just Democrats or Republicans. You need unaffiliated, undecided, independent voters, which makes it much less predictable than some of the other areas.

When I entered the race in 2018, I realized that this is a district that I would have to fight for every single time — I’d have to work hard for every single time and never take it for granted. And I don’t. So it doesn’t surprise me that this is a district to watch. I think what’s different is that the Republicans are making significant investments in a way that they’ve never done before.

But again, it’s not anything that surprises me or anything that I’ve ever taken for granted. I never thought that I’d go into an election season and not have to work really hard. So it’s not new for me at all.

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.