Unlikely Man of The House
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Peter Leonard operates a night elevator in a popular old downtown building. A friendly, burly man with a booming laugh, Mr. Leonard lives nearby in the Cadillac Motel, which is more like an old, dented Ford.
Every morning around 9 o'clock, Leonard leaves the motel, walking like a defensive lineman on sturdy legs, and goes to O'K Parker's Bar and Restaurant. There, at the end of the bar, he often sits on a wooden stool near a beige telephone.
Bar owner Teddy Parker has designated the stool and phone to be Leonard's district office, where some of the business of the state of New Hampshire is legally and enthusiastically conducted.
Last November, on his seventh try, and spending only $42 during his campaign, Leonard was elected to New Hampshire's House of Representatives from District 39 in a surprising victory.
Since then the phone has been ringing off the hook.
Newspapers, magazines, TV, even fast-talking guys from Hollywood have come to meet Leonard. The interest stems not from Leonard's $42 campaign, but because a man on welfare with a learning disability - a sincere man who reads at a third-grade level - has been elected to a state legislature.
"When I was growing up," Leonard says, seated in the bar one morning last week and talking intently in a gravelly voice, "I wanted to become a pastor. I always wanted to help people. Now I have the whole state to help."
For years Leonard has been a colorful and tireless presence at Manchester City Council meetings, or helping neighborhood organizations, or speaking from the heart at public forums on behalf of the disabled.
Annual salary of $100
Finally, after promising simply to help anyone he could, Leonard was elected to the legislature. Exactly 1,155 people voted for him and 983 voted for his Republican opponent, Edward Russell, a retired carpenter.
When Leonard goes to the State House in Concord to fulfill his duties once or twice a week, he rides the bus.
"It costs $5.55 one way," he says, "and the legislature pays mileage, about 29 cents a mile." All legislators are paid an annual salary of $100.
At the capitol, Leonard has been greeted with a mixture of cordiality and friendly curiosity. "We can have complex legislation," says a legislative staff member, "and some people have been willing to help him. I don't know, but he may miss a lot."
Carolann Williams, who is in a wheelchair, was also elected from District 39. She says, "Sometimes people here can be a little patronizing. We've talked a lot about having large print for Peter, but I haven't seen it happen yet."
Swift pace is confusing
Leonard is on the state transportation committee. "It used to be that people were on lots of committees," he says. "But people were getting burned out. I'm on a subcommittee trying to get more trains running up and down New Hampshire."
He says that sometimes the swift pace at the capitol can be a little confusing.
Still he has sponsored several bills, including one that designated four theaters as historic landmarks. And his name was also on a bill to make kindergarten mandatory in Manchester.
"He has been a big help in our Adopt-a-Block program," says Jennifer Lovy, a community organizer for Manchester Neighborhood Services. "He was everywhere, asking everybody to get involved."
To improve his reading skills, Leonard is being helped by a private tutor. "She says I am improving very well," he says, grinning.
"When I told this [to the legislature] at the last session, there was some snickering in the back row, but then someone said, 'If he learns how to read better, we'll all be in trouble.' "
For Ms. Williams and Leonard, unlike many of the lawyers and business people who were also elected, the legislature has their full-time attention.
"Peter doesn't have a hidden agenda," says Ms. Lovy. "He loves his community. A lot of people could learn from him because of his natural ability."
"Peter and I feel so privileged to serve the people of New Hampshire," says Williams, "and he and I give 110 percent of ourselves. We ran just to do a good job."
Leonard says his room at the Cadillac Motel is filling up with state reports and documents. His way out of the $70-a-week room may come from Hollywood.
Alan Shapiro, a producer at 20th Century Fox, was the winner in the efforts to buy Leonard's remarkable story for the silver screen.
Leonard signed a contract for a reported $500,000 after a lawyer in the New Hampshire governor's office helped with the negotiation.
"If things work out," Leonard says with pleasure, "the actor I would want to play me is Danny DeVito."
But he knows movie proposals sometimes never leave the proposal stage. "I won't change because of the movie," he says.
Leonard's mother lives in Manchester as do his three grown children. His two marriages ended in divorce.
"I've got three wonderful kids," he says, "but kids are always working something out." His laugh booms through the bar and restaurant.
Charm for peace
When he was two years old, Leonard says he pulled a hot cup of coffee from a table and it spilled over his chest and arms, severely burning him. Doctors said he was in shock for several days, and concluded that this experience affected his learning capacity.
Leonard lifts the narrow piece of turquoise jewelry from around his neck. "This is the Indian charm for peace," he says, emphasizing that he believes in God and peace.
"Love is a gift from God that He gives to man to share with everybody," he says, "and I've got so much love in me from God, and I share it with everybody."
In Manchester, according to community workers, Leonard puts his love into action.
"He comes to the meetings and he definitely gets things done," says Patricia Randall, director of Community Organizing for the Manchester Neighborhood Housing Services.
A common man
"Residents call him if they have a concern and he helps them, " she says.
"The great thing about Peter is that people know he is a common man, and people are not intimidated by him, and they have a good partnership with him. He gets some criticism because he has more challenges than others in the House, but he overcomes them, and doesn't let them hold him back."
Will he run again next year? "Yes," he says, "and I may spend even less than $42 this time."