Jonah Wheeler, 19, ready to provide perspective in House


The Keene Sentinel

Published: 11-16-2022 2:35 PM

When the conversation in the New Hampshire House turns to what is happening in high school, Jonah Wheeler will be able to speak with some authority.

After all, the newly elected state representative from Peterborough was attending ConVal Regional High last year.

Wheeler, 19, and incumbent Rep. Peter Leishman, 65, both Democrats, were elected last Nov. 8 to the two seats in Hillsborough County House District 33, which covers Peterborough and Sharon.

He will be among the youngest representatives to have ever served in the House. The House Clerk’s office said there have been at least two instances of 18-year-olds serving as state representatives.

Many lawmakers are four or more decades removed from their high school days and may not have the best sources of information about what things are like on campus these days.

For example, consider classes in social studies or history.

Last year, Gov. Chris Sununu signed legislation limiting the way public school teachers may discuss discrimination. The law, which is being challenged in court, says they are not allowed to teach, for instance, that certain groups of people are inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, consciously or unconsciously.

The rationale for the Republican-backed measure was that some teachers inject bias into their discussions of history or current affairs, or try to unduly influence their students.

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Wheeler said in an interview last week that, at least in his case, he never saw such a thing.

“If anything, there was a lack of the real history being there,” he said. “I think there was a lack of a fruitful discussion on what actually happened in history. There was a lack of digging deep on the hard issues which our country and our world have gone through.”

Rep. Joe Schapiro, D-Keene, said Wheeler should be able to bring perspective on this and other issues.

“As everyone talks about, the Legislature, because it’s unpaid and not that difficult to get elected, it skews dramatically towards older people who either are retired or wealthy enough to not work,” he said. “In general the more diverse that our House members can be in terms of age, socioeconomic experience, in terms of knowledge base, the better. Clearly, Jonah brings that.”

Wheeler said his background, including his family’s financial struggles, could help inform legislative discussions on a range of topics.

“I think every issue can use the voice of a working-class person who has gone through first-hand the struggle that many of us in our state are going through right now in terms of energy prices, the cost of living and if you’re a renter, how much you are paying for housing,” he said.

Wheeler, who is Black, will also be among a small number of people of color who are serving in the New Hampshire Legislature.

Wheeler was born in Keene, but he and his single mother moved around while he was growing up, including to public housing in Kent, Wash., as well as a stint in Gorham, Maine, before settling in Peterborough.

Wheeler has worked as a dishwasher, an ice cream scooper and a landscaper, among other things.

Now he is an education justice organizer with Rights and Democracy, an organization that advocates for higher wages, greater public-education funding and better health care.

In this role, he meets with representatives of public schools in New Hampshire to break down narratives on various concepts in education, including Critical Race Theory. This theory, which is part of some college instruction, holds that racism is embedded in the U.S. legal system and other social institutions.

He has learned to be a good listener, taking in the concerns of parents as well as educators.

“We’re trying to bridge the gap between those two groups, which have been pitted against each other, when in reality their interests are much more aligned than is often written about or talked about in the media or on television,” Wheeler said. “That’s part of what we can do in the legislative session, bridge that gap and start to make it clear what is happening in our schools.”

He classifies himself as “a bit of a nerd.”

“I think the first books I read were nonfiction history books about the United States,” he said. “That sort of pretty quickly leads you to politics.”

Living through economic struggles provides a lens for looking at the political world and motivation for making changes, Wheeler said.

He came to believe it’s possible for the government to work for everybody, including the working class.

Wheeler said he’ll eventually go to college, but first plans to learn plenty over the next two years at the State House.

“Peter Leishman, who has served there for 22 years, said to me on Election Day at the polls, ‘You should get a master’s degree for one term in the Legislature for the amount  of education you’ll receive, if you do it right.’”