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Leadership Fight Looms As Shurtleff, Wilhelm Vie For Top Spot

The November elections are shaping up to be a tough slog for Democrats in the New Hampshire House, and when they’re over, the caucus will have another battle brewing. Both Rep. Matt Wilhelm, (D-Manchester) and Rep. Steve Shurtleff, (D-Penacook) have announced they plan to run for House Democratic leader.

It is a contest that could once again crack the brittle facade covering tensions between the caucus’s disgruntled progressives and establishment members who currently hold the upper hand.

Shurtleff, a former Speaker of the House, is solidly aligned with his party’s establishment wing.

Wilhelm is not part of the hardcore progressive group, perhaps best represented by outgoing member Rep. Manny Espitia, but he is closer to them than Shurtleff. Wilhelm also has the advantage of handling the money members are counting on to help win re-election. He heads the New Hampshire Democratic Victory Campaign Committee, and he has also been named a NewDEAL Leader by the national pro-growth, progressive NewDEAL network. It is a group that includes Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams, Wisconsin Senate candidate Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Shurtleff was waiting in the wings to take over for the liberal Renny Cushing (D-Hampton) as he battled cancer. Cushing died in March from complications of cancer and COVID-19. But his ascent was blocked by progressives who kept him from taking even temporary leadership of the caucus. 

Instead, Nashua’s Rep. David Cote took over as Minority Leader, despite the fact he hadn’t been to Concord in years due to fears of COVID.

Shurtleff announced his candidacy via Twitter on Wednesday. Wilhelm announced his earlier this month. “I would like to publicly announce my candidacy for the next Speaker of the House. Tough times demand tough leadership. I would appreciate your support,” Shurtleff wrote.

Shurtleff’s announcement inspired immediate pushback from outgoing and outspoken Rep. Sherry Frost, (D-Dover.)

“Define ‘tough leadership’ please, because what I saw (and heard, from you) was that you saw your job as ‘protecting the minority’ when you were last Speaker,” Frost tweeted in response.

When contacted by NHJournal, Frost declined to clarify her statement saying she is not running for reelection. She refused to answer if she thought Shurtleff was the right person for the job, or who she would support in his stead.

“I would hope that my remaining colleagues would choose someone who understands and is comfortable with legislative strategy and has no patience for nonsense at the well,” Frost wrote. 

This is Wilhelm’s second run for House leadership. He put his hat in the ring ahead of the 2021 session, saying New Hampshire Democrats needed to change their message after losing control of the legislature even as Joe Biden was winning the state by nearly eight points. 

“After the setbacks of early November, we would be remiss if we did not re-examine our strategy and tactics for how we govern, how we campaign, and how we communicate with the working families of New Hampshire and those who feel like they don’t have a voice,” Wilhelm wrote in a letter to his House colleagues.

Shurtleff earned Cushing’s ire in the lead-up to the leadership election for the 2018 House session. Cushing accused Shurtleff of gaming the date of the party caucus in order to shut out potential rivals.

“As a loyal Democrat, it saddens me to realize that while the Republicans are having a robust contest to see who will emerge as the majority party’s candidate for Speaker, the incumbent leadership of the minority party apparently doesn’t feel the need to, or doesn’t want to, involve rank and file Democrats in the decision about who will be the party’s Speaker candidate and what policies, program and vision that nominee will bring to the contest,” Cushing wrote.

It’s Official: Pelosi Goes from 0-9 to 2-0 With New Hampshire Democrats

During the early days of the New Hampshire First District Democratic primary, none of the (at least) nine congressional candidates would commit to supporting former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s return to power if, as expected, their party took control of the chamber.

Eventually, just one of the candidates, state rep. Mark MacKenzie, would publicly endorse Pelosi for speaker before the primary vote.

He came in eighth. 

The eventual nominee, Democrat Chris Pappas, then spent the entire general election dodging the issue in his campaign against Republican Eddie Edwards.  Pappas won handily on November 6th, but weeks later still refused to reveal his intentions regarding the leader of his caucus.

Until today.

This morning, Pappas finally announced what many NH pundits suspected was true throughout his campaign: #HesWithHer. He will join his fellow New Hampshire Rep. Annie Kuster and vote for a return to the Pelosi era.

“After careful consideration and discussion with many constituents and future colleagues in Congress, I have decided to support Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House,” Pappas said in a statement released today.   “I believe she is best equipped to lead the House at this point in our history.

“My conversations with her convinced me she will lead with fairness and empower the incoming class to play a significant role in the work ahead. We must get down to doing the people’s business quickly, and we should start by reforming the way Washington works, lowering the cost of health care and creating an economy that allows everyone to succeed.”

“I will work with anyone, anywhere to do what’s right for the New Hampshire district I represent, and I will stand up to anyone—from President Trump to leaders in Congress—when they’re wrong.”

Despite the fact that the movement to stop a Pelosi speakership has been led by his fellow centrists in the party, a low-key moderate like Chris Pappas was always an unlikely rebel. In the primary, he ran against a field of strong women candidates for the chance to replace a Congresswoman, Carol Shea-Porter, in a state that currently has an entirely female federal delegation.

A vote against the first-ever woman Speaker–or any powerful woman, for that matter–was never in the cards.