EVERY MORNING AT 6 A.M., PETER F. Leonard leaves his cramped, $70-per-week room at the Cadillac Motel in Manchester, N.H., and walks to nearby O’K Parker’s bar and restaurant. The learning disabled handyman, 53, cleans the bar and restrooms and then, two or three days a week, climbs aboard a Trailways bus. When he steps off at the capitol in Concord, he has a new persona: He is one of 400 members of the state’s House of Representatives.
Last November, after six tries, Leonard was elected to represent District 39 in downtown Manchester, the state’s largest city. He didn’t do it for the money. Leonard—who reads at a third-grade level, owns no car or phone, and recently set up office at O’K Parker’s, owned by friend Teddy Parker—gets the standard salary of $100 per year. The remainder of his income comes from welfare, Social Security disability payments and food stamps. “I don’t need much,” he shrugs. “I live like a priest. Or a monk.”
He has always made do with the basics. The son of a maintenance man and a seamstress, the Manchester native got his high school equivalency degree in 1970 and then worked at a series of odd jobs, including maintenance at the local Palace Theater. After two marriages—the second yielding three now-grown children—and two divorces, Leonard became a born-again Christian in 1983. A year later, feeling he had a mission to enter politics, he began running for the state legislative seat as a Democrat.
His controversial victory on the seventh try is not without detractors. “These laws are not simple,” says Edward A. Russell Jr., a Republican and retired carpenter who lost to Leonard by 172 votes in November. “I don’t know how he can comprehend.” But since last December, when he was sworn in, Leonard has submitted several bills, including one, which passed in March, to designate four state theaters as historic landmarks. For the most part his constituents seem impressed. “His heart’s in the right place,” says Manchester City Clerk Leo R. Bernier. Leonard, agrees pal Marsha Courage, is “probably the only honest politician.”