Wheeler finds balance in politics and protons

Chemistry teacher runs for state assembly; learns from her experiences


Photo courtesy of Eileen Della Volle and Erin Wheeler for NJ Assembly

Wheeler speaks at the New Jersey Young Democrats 2019 Endorsement Party on Oct. 25.

Jordan Durkin

All teachers are busy during the back to school season. It’s comprised of setting up classrooms, writing lesson plans, and attending meetings. However, things were even busier for Chemistry teacher Erin Wheeler. Since the spring, she’s lived a double life: one as a teacher and one as a politician. The 2:19p.m. bell signaled not only the end of the school day, but the start of hours of campaign work, meeting voters or coordinating fundraising efforts. But for Wheeler, it was all in a day’s work as a New Jersey State Assembly Candidate in Legislative District 10 (LD-10).  

“Everyday I leave around 2:30-2:45, I go either knock on doors, call people for money, or get ready to attend an event,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler ran as a Democrat, vying for a two-year term in the assembly to represent LD-10, which covers Ocean County municipalities such as Toms River, Brick and Point Pleasant. LD-10 Republican Assemblyman David Wolfe had retired, leaving an empty seat alongside fellow Republican Gregory McGuckin. While this was her first campaign, politics is far from a new field for Wheeler. She has always shown an interest, taking part ever since she was a teenager.

“I actually had a political class in high school in which we invited in mayors and local politics to our class where we worked on their campaigns,” Wheeler said. “I’ve been involved at the peripheral level for a long time.”

Wheeler is also involved in the Ocean County Democratic Women’s Caucus, chairs the NJEA Vocational, Career, and Technical Education Committee and is currently the president of her local teacher’s union, the Monmouth County Vocational Educational Association. Alongside her running mate Eileen Della Volle, Wheeler used her outside leadership experience to focus her campaign vocational, public education, as well as environmental conservation efforts for the Barnegat Bay. The pair, both involved in the New Jersey Democratic Women’s Caucus, were introduced prior to the election.

The two shared a mutual friend, and due to their involvement in the Ocean County Democratic Women’s Caucus, were easily introduced. Della Volle was in search of a younger running mate with experience in education. Having a teacher on her team would assist in the educational focus of her campaign.

The hardest challenge the pair endured during the race was raising money. To fundraise, they tried a variety of different methods.This included creating social media accounts, issuing press releases, receiving organization endorsements, and most importantly knocking on doors. This experience alone showed Wheeler a lot about her community.

“A lot of people are telling us that ‘nobody has ever knocked on my door I’ve lived in this house for 30 years and no one has ever knocked on my door’ so that’s interesting too,” Wheeler said, “As a community the politicians weren’t reaching out to the general population.” 

The two have also spoken at town meetings and attended candidate meet and greets, to talk with voters and raise money. Between them, they have knocked on about 5,000 doors since the campaign started.

Her campaign managers recommended raising around $250,000. Since Wheeler had never run for office before, her knowledge on the topic was slim and she assumed that they would not need such a large number. However, she soon realized how fast money can add up, explaining how seemingly small purchases required strong fundraising. Each lawn sign cost $5, a cost which quickly grew when printing a large quantity. The team also paid for campaign consultants, business cards and social media/television advertisements, which cost around $30,000 in total.

Her experiences from working to overcome such challenges in the campaign have taught Wheeler many different lessons revolving herself and her community. 

“I guess the greatest lesson I’ve learned is if you’re not happy with what’s happening with your town, city, legislative district…you can absolutely run and make a difference,” Wheeler said. “We’re doing that, we’re reaching all those people, and you don’t have to be a seasoned politician to run. You just have to be prepared to work and I am working, I am working my butt off.”

Wheeler and Della Volle did not secure enough votes to win the Assembly seats on Nov. 5, Election Day. Wheeler received 18.05% of the vote, while McGuckin and former Brick councilman John Catalano received 31.48% and 30.6%, respectively, according to NJTV.

Despite her loss, Wheeler said she is looking forward to returning to a normal schedule, and while unsure of where her future in politics lies, she intends to remain involved in some way. 

“[I’m] glad to go back to my normal life in terms of things that I enjoy. I don’t know if politics is where I want to go, but I’ll definitely stick with it and stay involved,” Wheeler said. “We tried our best and we did what we could…I’m proud of what we did at the end of the day.”