State Rep. Jonah Wheeler (D-Peterborough) wanted his fellow progressives to know why he was joining a bipartisan majority to support a ban on sex-change surgery for minors. So when HB619 came to the House floor, he delivered a speech that the bill’s supporters described as “brave” and “thoughtful” but left many Democrats outraged.
“The question before us is whether or not children under the age of 18 should be able to get these surgeries. And despite being a liberal who believes in [trans] rights, I don’t think that is the case.” Wheeler told his fellow House members. “These are irreversible surgeries. This is not a question of whether you’re with the trans community. It’s a question of whether or not you believe children should be able to get these irreversible surgeries.
“I’ll take all the heat that comes from this,” Wheeler added.
And he got it, too.
After the amended bill passed the House 199-175 — with 12 Democrats and two independents joining every Republican — Wheeler was besieged by outraged progressives in the House anteroom. Multiple sources confirmed to NHJournal that the reaction was so intense that several House Republicans went there out of concern for Wheeler.
“They were having an old-fashioned struggle session,” one House member, who asked not to be identified, told NHJournal. (Struggle sessions were public spectacles in Communist China where those viewed as having betrayed the cause were accused and humiliated by people close to them.)
“It was the bravest thing I’ve seen from a Democrat; it was powerful stuff,” conservative Rep. Tom Mannion (R-Pelham) said of Wheeler’s speech and his vote. “When Jonah went to the anteroom, a bunch of Democrats were aggressively confronting him, saying he owed an apology to [transgender] members. He didn’t back down. I heard him say, ‘This is called “legislating.”‘ And they said he should go in the other room and hang out with Republicans if he wasn’t going to toe the line.”
Wheeler confirmed Mannion’s account to NHJournal.
“I was told in the anteroom that I ‘didn’t belong.’ I responded by saying that I was elected by my constituents and I have just as much a right to be here as anyone else. I did say this is legislating, and I have to give credit where credit is due: it was Rep. Michael O’Brien (D-Nashua) who came in and calmed everyone down.”
But as the morning wore on, the mood among Democrats didn’t improve. The animosity rose to such a point that House Democratic Caucus Leader Matt Wilhelm (D-Manchester) felt the need to call a caucus meeting around lunchtime in an attempt to soothe emotions.
Wilhelm declined to respond to questions about Thursday’s events. But multiple sources confirmed the lunchtime bull session didn’t work. Instead, there were so many threats made against Wheeler by his fellow Democrats that State House security stepped in.
According to those sources, members of the House Sergeants-at-Arms overheard comments that concerned them so much that they reached out to the State House Security Unit of the State Police.
“I was told about the threats from State House Security,” Wheeler said. “I wasn’t told what they were; I was only told that they were informed there could be or was a threat against me. But nothing happened.”
Wheeler confirmed that for the rest of the day, he was moved from his usual seat in the middle of his caucus to the back row of Section 3.
“The clerk [Clerk of the House Paul Smith] pulled me aside to make sure I was okay, and we decided changing seats would be a good thing to do,” Wheeler said.
While Democrats may have been disappointed, Wheeler won accolades from Republicans who acknowledged that they don’t share his ideology, but they admire his character.
“I am always impressed when Rep. Wheeler speaks at the well,” Rep. Erica Layon (R-Derry) posted on social media. “His support on this bill was huge. I am disappointed in his colleagues who followed him out to the anteroom to berate him for standing up for common sense. We had 21 Democrats vote for the amendment and 12 vote for the bill as amended. I thank them all for their support.”
Conservative Rep. Michael Costable (R-Freedom) added: “Going against the orthodoxy of your own party and pop culture will have consequences. Respect to you, sir, for speaking on principles, no matter the consequence.”
Ironically, this isn’t the first time State House security has had to intervene because of angry Democrats targeting Wheeler. As a teen activist with the group Rights and Democracy NH, Wheeler was confronted by then-Rep. Nicole Klein-Knight (D-Manchester) regarding his testimony to the House. Klein-Knight repeatedly used the word “n*****” in her confrontation, though she didn’t direct it at Wheeler. The incident concluded with her calling security on Wheeler.
The ugly incident set off weeks of infighting and recriminations among House Democrats, and Klein-Knight received a letter of reprimand from House leadership.
Wheeler would be elected to the House that November.
Then, as now, Wheeler attempted to avoid conflict rather than inflame it.
“I think it’s unfortunate that people said what they did, but it doesn’t behoove me to dwell on that. I am confident in how I voted and as I said in my speech, am fully prepared for backlash,” he told NHJournal Thursday night.
“You have to be if you want to be in politics,” Wheeler added.