DANBURY — In a head-to-head debate last week, 5th Congressional District candidates Jahana Hayes and Manny Santos presented dramatically different positions on policies affecting transgender students, health care, guns and the environment.

Santos, the Republican candidate who came to the U.S. from Portugal at age 5, backed a government that will enforce the rule of law and support personal responsibilities. He said too many Americans supported Medicare-for-all and free college tuition, policies that would “bankrupt” the country.

“We have become a nation divided on what America is and will be,” said Santos, a former one-term Meriden mayor.

Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year and the Democratic candidate, painted a vision of the United States as a big tent for all people, a place where the environment can flourish without hampering the economy, winning a standing ovation from many in the crowd. She called Santos’s vision “a fear tactic.”

Their 90-minute debate often hinged on what should happen in classrooms — where Hayes has spent the past 15 years in Waterbury Public Schools.

The debate took place at the Portuguese Cultural Center in Danbury, just a few miles from Newtown, where 20 elementary school children and six teachers and staff were killed in 2012.

Santos said he would support arming teachers if local school districts approved.

“Right now, just every school is vulnerable,” said Santos, a product engineer and former Marine. “They’re soft targets.”

Hayes, whose husband is a police officer, called that idea “dangerous.”

She said the idea of arming teachers in the 5th District was “so incredibly tone deaf and does not recognize the hurt and the pain that this community deals with on a daily basis.”

Hayes, 45, favored “commonsense gun reform,” duplicating Connecticut’s strong gun laws across the nation. Santos, 49, warned against infringing on an individual’s Second Amendment rights and backed funding for mental health solutions instead.

In schools, he worried that students identifying as transgender unnecessarily divided people.

“I believe there are two sexes — a man or a woman — and if you are in school, use one or the other,” Santos said. “If we keep dividing people, the way we have been, that becomes a problem.”

Hayes rebutted, “People are different but there is nothing wrong with being different,” she said. “It is only people who pinpoint those differences and demonize them that are the problem.”

Santos, who is anti-abortion, spoke of his ability to craft appropriate legislation for women’s health because he has a mother and a daughter. Hayes, who is for abortion rights, punched back that he must be “pro-birth,” if he backs Republican policies like detaining immigrant children separately from their parents at the border, which she referred to as “putting children in cages.” She argued the separation policy, which Santos did not say he favored, meant anti-abortion Republicans did not look out for children throughout their lives.

Hayes said she was hopeful that women’s rights would improve with more women in Congress. In response to the office abuse scandal that led Democratic U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty not to seek re-election to the 5th District she served for three terms, Hayes suggested, if elected to Esty’s seat, she would back more transparency and policies to protect women in workplaces, including on Capitol Hill.

Santos said the scandal was more a matter of a legislator’s “character” than policy.

“Mrs. Esty knew that this occurred and did nothing, only until several months later,” Santos said. “I would have removed that individual from the office.”

In a lengthy back-and-forth on health care, Hayes and Santos supported a few aspects of the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, such as requiring coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions, but they disagreed on the broad impact of the law.

Santos said the legislation drove up costs and forced people to find new doctors. Hayes said it made people healthier.

Hayes favors taking government intervention in health care further, backing Medicare-for-all — a system most vocally backed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — that would allow all Americans to buy into Medicare health insurance. Santos said such a system would be disastrously expensive and inefficient.

“It’s not the utopia that many are believing it will be,” Santos said.

On the environment, Santos said he was not convinced climate change was caused by humans. Santos, whose parents were subsistence farmers in Portugal, supported lifting some environmental regulations on American farmers.

Hayes said she “accepted the science” of climate change and would make environmental policy a top priority. She shared a story of how pollution caused one of her students with asthma to be hospitalized.

emunson@hearstmediact.com