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One year down, one to go. 

A retrospective of my first year in the legislature. 

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     The oath of office was administered December 7th, 2022. There were 201 Republicans, and 197 Democrats that took the oath that day, making this the closest the composition of the legislature has been since 1871. People have been debating, and voting on the laws of the State of New Hampshire in this body for over two hundred years. Much has changed over the centuries Representatives have debated at the dais. In 1819 when the building was finished, wealthy landowning men were the only ones with the right to vote, African slaves were still in their chains, war was still fought with muskets and bayonets. Those that debated during that first House session would not be able to fathom the world in which we live today, but in many ways they laid the foundation for it. 

     

     When I walked up to the House on that mild, rainy day in December of last year, inundated with the firehose of information that comes as soon as you’re elected; I was feeling first day jitters akin to being a middle school kid going into the big-bad high school. Worried about all those bigger kids who’ve got their seniority, but excited for the responsibilities and new opportunities to come. To be blunt, I was nervous. The building was a buzz, with people holding signs protesting different issues, lobbyists running around to glad-hand the legislators, and the roar of the chamber bellowing throughout the second floor. After finding my way to my seat, and finally getting a few seconds to take it all in, my eyes tracked to the towering paintings of Senator John P. Hale, and President Lincoln. I thought of those who were killed in the fight for abolition, those that felt a higher calling and spent their lives in the pursuit of a sunrise they would never see. Those people who paved the path to allow an idealistic nineteen year old who happens to be black to run for the State House, and serve the people of his hometown. I felt the spirit of a people behind my back, and with the courage of those who came before me all the nerves washed away. The moment of respite was interrupted by the buzz of introductions to other legislators, and ultimately the gavel, slammed down thrice by the clerk. Marking the beginning of the biennium. 

 

     Reverend Peggy E. Schnack gave the opening prayer, “Give them the grace not only to hear, but truly listen to one another and the people of the State of New Hampshire. Grant them the wisdom to work together and put aside individual ambition so that may enact such laws as to bring unity around the causes of justice peace and respect for every human being.” The Governor was escorted into the Chamber, hopped onto the stage, sang us a quick show tune, gave us a speech welcoming us to body and asked us to raise our hand. We then took our oath to the constitutions of New Hampshire and the United States. I took that oath with my gaze fixed to Lincoln and Hale, ready to continue the path blazed by those who came before.

     Paul Smith, the Clerk of the House, presided over the House as we then elected our Speaker. The Democrats nominated Matthew Wilhelm of Manchester, and the Republicans nominated Sherman Packard of Londonderry. The election was cordial. Both candidates and the members who nominated them emphasized the unique opportunity the virtual tie in membership gives the body to be bipartisan. In one round of voting Representative Packard was elected as the Speaker of the House. We finished the rest of our business for the day and went home for the holidays. 

     Unlike most States where most bills don’t move past introduction, in New Hampshire, every bill introduced gets assigned to it’s relevant committee for a hearing in which members of the public can come testify, and every citizen has a right to be heard. Each one of those bills gets whats called an executive session in the committee which it has been assigned to where the bill gets voted on, and gets a committee recommendation. Committees can either vote to recommend an Ought to Pass, or Inexpedient to Legislate motion to the floor. More commonly referred to as OTP, and ITL motions respectively. They can also vote to retain a bill for further study which is sometimes maliciously used to quietly kill a bill. Due to the virtual tie in the legislature each committee was assigned ten members per party. I was put on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety committee team under the leadership of Linda Harriott-Gathright of Nashua. Chaired by Terry Roy, Criminal Justice was set to be the second busiest committee of the year with over sixty bills assigned to our committee. These bills ranged from drug policy to police conduct. From racial profiling to the complex and twisted carceral system. 

     From January to June and then August to November, was a seemingly endless stream of public hearings, executive sessions, subcommittees, and sessions of the full house. One of the most impactful moments of the session was when we heard horrific testimony from female prisoners in the county jails about the state of the distribution of menstrual products. Inhumane treatment of these people in prison. The committee came together, passionately, with people on totally opposite sides of the ideological aisle coming together to solve this which should never have been an issue. The prime sponsor Ellen Read and the Vice Chair of Criminal Justice Representative Jennifer Rhodes worked tirelessly, resulting in a 20-0 vote for HB421 in the criminal justice committee. After bouncing back and forth between the House and the Senate the bill was unanimously adopted by both bodies, and signed by Governor Sununu on August 4th. None of that would’ve been possible without the work of the advocates who were brave enough to share their stories. They proved the power people can have when they organize, taking action on their own, and as a result women in the county jails will be a big step closer to being treated as the human beings that they are. 

      I ran for office because our country is fundamentally out of sync. Those glad-handing lobbyists, and the powerful people and organizations they work for, have all of the power. While the people, the laborers who are the lifeblood of our society, have none. The line between the public and private sector has blurred so much so that it may not even exist anymore. Industry, through its unlimited ability to fund lobbyists that advocate on their behalf, is regulating itself. Putting our environment, health, and most importantly our Republic, at dire risk. My time in public life will be spent working towards making New Hampshire a State of, by, and for the people. Not the corporations. I have done just that over this last year. Fighting to make sure our civil liberties are protected, our right to bodily autonomy enshrined, and our environment protected. I am not a backbencher, or a button pusher. I’m not in public service to hangout with the politicians, I’m there to serve.  To use every minute I have advocating for those who don’t have a voice in the halls of power. I am proud to say I’ve done that, and will do that as long as the people want me to serve. 

Regards,

Representative Jonah Orion Wheeler 

December 7th, 2023.

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