Dan Haar: Hayes’ uncomfortable link between race and the 2020 vote

Jahana Hayes, then a candidate for Congress, addresses delegates during the Democratic convention for the 5th District in Waterbury in 2018.

With raw emotions, a punch to her gut and her place in the world under wrongful attack, Rep. Jahana Hayes posted a tweet very late Monday night, trying to make sense of what had just happened on a Zoom gathering.

“So sorry to Newtown who had to endure this zoom bombing episode,” Hayes, D-5, wrote — after a group of racists had repeatedly used the N-word and other horrific epithets relating to slavery, to disrupt her event.

I join the chorus of people on both sides of the political ocean decrying the attack. Now let’s focus on the link between it and the Election Day vote — a complex and uncomfortable connection that Hayes herself raised.

The racists had shown support for President Donald Trump on the Zoom call, rather loudly. That Hayes felt the need to apologize for her audience having to witness an attack on her speaks loudly as well.

Hayes ended her tweet with the following: “This behavior is being normalized! We can ALL choose not to accept it. Please vote on Nov 3rd.”

That last line — “Please vote on Nov. 3” — raises questions that cut to the heart of this national election, and beyond that, the race-based culture war that divides the United States in 2020. Why did she connect the fight to de-normalize racism with voting?

Did Hayes mean, “Vote for me as a Democrat to help send a message that we are the party of inclusion?” Did she mean, “Vote for me as an African American to send a message about racial tolerance?”

Maybe she meant “Vote against Donald Trump.” After all, there can be no doubt that Trump has welcomed the support of racists by failing to rebuke them unconditionally and by sending such dog-whistle signals as “stand back and stand by” to white supremacists and “sh**hole countries” referring to places where dark-skinned people live.

Come to think of it, I can hear those whistles pretty well as a human.

Or, maybe Hayes simply sent a message to her supporters exactly three weeks before Election Day with the same call that any campaigner would deliver: Vote.

I didn’t hear back from Hayes through her Congressional office or her campaign. But in the climate we’re living through right now, we could excuse her for connecting the vote in 2020 to a statement on racism in America — even if she were not under extreme duress.

Trouble is, Republicans in general and specifically, Hayes’ GOP challenger, David X. Sullivan, are no more racist than Democrats. Racism is a ubiquitous trait built on centuries of history, not a political leaning.

Sullivan issued a sharply worded statement condemning the Monday night Zoom bombing attack by a “bigoted coward,” adding, “I am grateful and encouraged that the management of Zoom is investigating this disgusting incident.”

J.R. Romano, the Republican state chairman, said to me, “There’s no one in the Republican Party who believes this is acceptable behavior.”

And yet, here we are after another racial attack, with a viable connection between ending the normalization of such depraved discourse and voting. How can something that’s not partisan have a partisan solution?

I spoke with two people who think a lot more than most of us about this unfortunate aspect of the culture wars: Erick Russell, vice chairman of the Democratic state central committee, and Khalilah Brown-Dean, a political science professor and senior director for inclusive excellence at Quinnipiac University.

“This is partisan in a way because of the tone that has been set and the racist and bigoted statements by the current occupant of the White House,” Russell said. “People who have held these thoughts have been emboldened over the last five years to spew that hatred. ...This has become a partisan issue because Trump has politicized these kinds of things. He’s built his base on this rhetoric.”

Careful here — Russell is not saying racism is partisan, “but what she experienced and her response to it is partisan.”

And what happened to her happens to just about all people of color. Russell, who is Black, attested to that. So the politics of race feeds on itself once it starts.

I told Brown-Dean I thought the victims here include morally upstanding Republicans such as Sullivan. They must campaign from within a party whose CEO has made racial division, if not racism itself, a hallmark.

No, she said, they could and should rebuke Trump clearly and cleanly. But is it too late for that, now that he owns the party?

When Hayes says “vote,” it’s not about her vs. Sullivan, and yet that’s the choice voters in the 5th District have, and it’s impossible not to think about race in this moment.

“I don’t think there’s any question about who she’s running against, I think the question is about what she’s facing in this current climate,” Brown-Dean said. “No one, I think, would disagree that this is an incredibly tense climate in this country right now.”

Romano, the Republican state chairman, didn’t blame Hayes in the slightest for calling for a vote as part of her appeal to de-normalize racism. “I have no issues with someone encouraging the public to vote,” he said.

Romano also didn’t assume Hayes was saying a vote for her was a vote against racism.

Still, Brown-Dean said, “Given where we are right now, people respond to candidates and to policies through that lens...“This becomes bigger than this one Zoom bombing.”

It’s about the attitudes that have exploded criminal justice, for sure. That led Brown-Dean to say, speaking both metaphorically and literally, about justice and politics, “There are a few bad cops who spoil it for all the good cops.”

Brown-Dean suggested Hayes may have meant any of the possible reasons, or a combination, for imploring people to vote in her message about the incident. And so we have a toxic mystery, how race and this election tie together when that should not, in an ideal world, be happening.

That’s the power of Trumpism, and Trump, to divide, and to suck the air out of civil discourse. For the record, a rebuke of the racist attack on Hayes was not among the 33 tweets from Trump’s campaign account or the 28 tweets from his presidential account between midnight and 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Wow, that would have been a sight. Back to reality, it’s no wonder that Hayes’ 1,330-word blog post Tuesday morning showed the closest thing to a breakdown we’ll ever see from a stable politician and former national teacher of the year in a teachable moment, on solid ground.

“I am tired, completely and utterly tired. No, actually I’m exhausted. This is something that a leader is not supposed to say; but it’s whatever,” she wrote. “I am not ok.”

Connecticut Media Group