With her first television commercial in the primary for the Democratic nomination for Congress from Connecticut's 5th District, Jahana Hayes is pitching her inspiring personal story. She is the daughter of an unmarried drug addict, was raised by her grandmother in public housing in Waterbury, became a single mother herself at 17, succeeded in community college, was hired as a teacher in the city, and two years ago was chosen Connecticut's and then the country's teacher of the year.
But inspiring as it is, Hayes's story really isn't so unusual. Indeed, rising from adversity to success may be the oldest story of American politics, going back to Honest Abe the Rail Splitter and beyond, just as the American story generally is the steady democratization of society, a trend of such momentum that it has sparked a war of independence, a civil war, and a civil rights revolution.
Hayes's commercial seems to deny it all.
Hayes is black and in her commercial she says people like her "aren't supposed to run for Congress," adding, "I know the system does not reflect us."
So how come "the system" made her state and national teacher of the year? How did she win nearly half the vote at the 5th District's Democratic convention while having no political record and without most of her own supporters knowing anything about her besides her race and her teaching award? What kind of oppression is that?
Of course it hasn't hurt her candidacy that the teacher unions control state government and Connecticut's Democratic Party and are the party's biggest constituency nationally. There's plenty of oppression in that but none of it is against Hayes. Indeed, it's all in her favor.
Further, if Hayes is elected she will become the second black person elected to Congress from Connecticut, not the first, and not even the first from Waterbury. Twenty-eight years ago that honor went to a Republican, Gary Franks, an alderman whose own background was not privileged either but working-class.
Ironically, the Waterbury congressional district is considered the most politically conservative in the state.
At the end of her commercial Hayes sinks to playing the race and gender cards. "If Congress starts to look like us," she says, "no one can stop us. This is our moment -- to act, to organize, and bring our truth to power."
But other than changing the racial and gender composition of Congress -- while, of course, leaving undisturbed the white Democrats who fill the other places in Connecticut's delegation -- Hayes comes out for nothing more than "better jobs, stronger schools, and affordable health care." Those aren't "truths" at all but empty platitudes.
The recent history of the district Hayes would represent tends to contradict her assertion that changing the "looks" of Congress will change much. For both Franks and the Democrat Hayes aims to succeed, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, were quickly corrupted by power.
Too impressed with himself, Franks ridiculously began writing an autobiography soon after reaching Congress, lost touch with his district, and was defeated for re-election after three terms. Esty's gender made her a symbol of change and she postured against sexual harassment, but then she coddled and concealed sexual harassment on her own staff. Exposed, she was induced to make her third term her last.
"Put not your trust in princes," the psalm says. Their political ads aren't much more reliable.
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.