New Hampshire House Democrats choose Wilhelm over Shurtleff to lead party

By: - November 17, 2022 2:21 pm

Rep. Matt Wilhelm of Manchester addresses reporters in Concord after winning a vote to lead the House Democratic caucus. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)

New Hampshire House Democrats elected Rep. Matt Wilhelm as House Democratic leader Thursday, seeking a change in direction amid razor-thin margins in the chamber.

Wilhelm, of Manchester, was elected by House Democrats in a closed-door session in Representatives Hall. He beat his opponent, former House speaker Steve Shurtleff, 108-85.

“(I’m) excited to be working with a really unified Democratic caucus, to make sure that we advance our policy priorities and work across the aisle where we can,” Wilhelm told reporters shortly after the victory.

Wilhelm, 40, will face the challenge of leading the House Democratic caucus through a near-evenly divided House, whose final makeup is still unclear. A series of ongoing recounts and ballot challenges could swing the 400-member chamber to Democrats, keep it in Republican hands, or split evenly. 

Speaking to reporters, Wilhelm named electric rates and rent as two issues that Democrats would work on in the next session but did not elaborate on specific bills. 

“Given we’ve got a near 50-50 chamber, I’m optimistic about the ways that we can work together,” he said. And he argued that Gov. Chris Sununu would need to negotiate with House Democrats on the budget, given the narrowly divided chamber. 

“I think the governor needs to be working directly with House Democrats this cycle, not working with just exclusively the Republican caucus,” he said. 

Wilhelm also declined to comment on how House Democrats should handle Rep. Stacie Laughton, a Nashua Democrat who was arrested by Nashua police Saturday for allegedly violating a stalking protective order, according to Patch. 

“I just got elected,” he said. “…I can come out with a statement another time, but I’m not ready to talk about that.”

The vote came after weeks of quiet campaigning by both candidates among members of the Democratic caucus.

Former House Speaker Steve Shurtleff takes a walk outside Representatives Hall as the votes are counted in the race for House Democratic leader on Thursday. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Shurtleff, who served as House speaker from 2018 to 2020, had appealed to his colleagues to consider his experience. He noted his 18 years as a House representative and touted his time leading his party and the House through the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. In a Nov. 11 press release, Shurtleff said he had 60 representatives supporting him, including stalwarts like Reps. Marjorie Smith of Durham, Mel Myler of Hopkinton, and Lucy Weber of Walpole, each of whom chaired key committees when Democrats controlled the House.

Shurtleff’s supporters painted the Penacook representative as a unifier willing to work with both parties.

Wilhelm, meanwhile, portrayed himself as a spirited campaigner, highlighting his role at the head of the Democratic Victory Campaign Committee, the fundraising and organizing arm of the Democratic caucus. In that role, Wilhelm helped raise $1.6 million for candidates, an unusually high fundraising haul that Wilhelm argued helped Democrats come within a seat or two of flipping the Republican-led House this month.

Wilhelm appealed to new members who had worked with him in that role as candidates, but he also snapped up the support of some key House Democratic figureheads, including current House Democratic Leader David Cote of Nashua, former House Finance chairwoman Mary Jane Wallner of Concord, Rep. Karen Ebel of New London, and Rep. Sharon Nordgren of Hanover. 

And he took the unusual step of announcing the person who would serve as his deputy: Rep. Alexis Simpson of Exeter, who also helped lead the Democrats’ reelection committee. 

The leadership vote follows a House Republican leadership election Wednesday in which Speaker Sherman Packard was reelected to head the Republican caucus – and likely the Speaker’s Office.

The House divide is currently at 200 Republicans and 199 Democrats, but recounts remain and Republicans in close races have filed several challenges with the Ballot Law Commission. That commission, which meets Nov. 28, has the power to reject certain ballots whose intent is not clear, which could change outcomes of crucial seats. 

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel. Email: [email protected]