Levesque reflects on voting rights and her first term as New Hampshire’s first Black senator

  • State Senator Melanie Levesque addresses the crowd at a campaign event for Elizabeth Warren in Hollis last fall. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Senator Melanie Levesque is New Hampshire's first black senator. Courtesy photo—@Timothy Avery Photography

  • State Senator Melanie Levesque addresses the crowd at a campaign event for Elizabeth Warren in Hollis last fall. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 10/14/2020 4:03:45 PM

It’s been nearly 100 years since the United States ratified the 19th Amendment, and here in 2020, New Hampshire State Senator Melanie Levesque is continuing the fight to keep the right accessible to everyone. As the state’s first Black state senator, she has a unique view on the issue.

The 19th Amendment is touted as giving women the right to vote in the United States – but not all women. At the time, Chinese-Americans weren’t considered citizens. Neither were Native Americans. And while Black men had already secured the vote, in many places, barriers such as poll taxes and literacy tests were put in place to try to bar the poor and Black voters from accessing their right to vote.

It’s an issue that persists even today, and something she’s fighting, Levesque (D-District 12), who represents Brookline, Greenville, Hollis, Mason, New Ipswich, Rindge, and three wards in Nashua, said.

“I’m very passionate about voting rights,” Levesque said in an interview with the Ledger-Transcript last week. Levesque is a supporter of measures such as online voting registration, and maintaining absentee ballot voting for any reason – and the fight continues, she said. Nationally, polling stations are shutting down, disproportionately affecting poor people and minority’s ability to vote.

“We have to do a better job so that everyone is involved in this Democratic process, and to make sure that states don't do things like eliminate polling stations, or reduce the amount of time for early voting. We need to be doing everything to make it easier to vote, not harder,” Levesque said.

Some people think it’s an issue of a bygone era, she said. But it was not so long ago that a friend of Levesque’s, a Korean War veteran, was asked to guess how many jellybeans were in a jar as a form of a literacy test – a practice which lingered into the 1960s. With long early voting lines popping up in places like Georgia ahead of the 2020 presidential election, it’s clear the issue has not been solved.

“Things like that, most of my peers could not imagine going through,” Levesque said. “I have a history that I can bring with me to the statehouse, experiences that I can share to give them an insight as an African-American woman.”

Though, she said, “New Hampshire’s first Black senator” was not an identity she’s always felt comfortable embracing.

‘Melanie fromthe neighborhood’

Levesque’s family moved to New Hampshire when she was three years old, and she knows nothing else, she said.

“I don’t feel that I’m that different. I didn’t feel comfortable saying I was the first African-American senator. I’ve always just been Melanie, and a member of the community. But I’ve realized that there are people that looked at me, and said, ‘I can do this, too.’ So I have to embrace it and be proud.”

Harold Solomon of Nashua, a long-time friend of Levesque’s, agreed with that sentiment. He saw her grow up in their Nashua neighborhood and befriend his children, and to him, the person that won the senate seat two years ago was “Melanie, a kid from our neighborhood.” But sometimes, it’ll hit him, he said.

“It really is monumental if you sit back and look at the situation. She’s the first one,” Solomon said. “And it’s a good thing for the people of New Hampshire. Diversity is a good thing, but it’s also Melanie, and she’s a really good person.”

Paula Mathers, who attended school with Levesque, said when she first entered politics as a state representative, she wasn’t surprised, knowing Levesque as a “go-getter” and a natural leader. When she took her next step into the senate, Mathers said she didn’t know how the notoriously homogeneous New Hampshire would take to the idea of a black representative in the senate. 

Levesque’s win, she said, put those fears to rest for her.

“I think it’s that she got to know people. She was feet on the ground, and on the phone and just talking to people. I’m inspired by her and encouraged by the state for voting for her,” Mathers said. “And now, I think she’ll do it again, and I think she’ll be returning as our incumbent.”

Solomon said the Levesque family, when they first moved to Nashua, had to face that same kind of challenge, and dealt with it the same way – by being part of the community.

“There were people in the neighborhood, that when they moved in, didn’t want them there,” Solomon said. “I didn’t even know this at the time, I learned later, but there were people like that. She’s endured a tremendous amount of prejudice. But also, there were people that, after they got to know them, changed their minds.”

That’s how to reach anyone, Levesque said.

“My advise to anyone who is looking to get into politics, is to look for the common bonds. Don’t look for what makes you different, look for areas where you have in common. Let people know who you are. People vote for people who they know,” Levesque said. “A representative is there to be there for constituents, not just making the law.”

Her advice to people of color looking to join the ranks: “Don’t ever sell yourself short, or assume people aren’t going to like you. I had this fear, initially, that people weren’t going to like me. That was never the case. People were warm and welcoming,” Levesque said. “Even if we don’t agree, we treat each other with respect. And you might be surprised. They might end up being your best friend.”


Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaariMLT.

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