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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Movement starts slowly, but future encouraging

In the land of elephants and donkeys, a small group of porcupines is making its presence felt.

Ten years after they first targeted New Hampshire, members of the Free State Project, symbolized by a porcupine for its nonaggressive but protective traits, are continuing to alter the state’s social and political landscape, according to participants, critics and analysts alike. ...

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In the land of elephants and donkeys, a small group of porcupines is making its presence felt.

Ten years after they first targeted New Hampshire, members of the Free State Project, symbolized by a porcupine for its nonaggressive but protective traits, are continuing to alter the state’s social and political landscape, according to participants, critics and analysts alike.

The movement, which aims to bring 20,000 libertarian-leaning activists to the state, is well short of its goals thus far. Currently, 1,133 participants now call New Hampshire home.

Yet, despite the small numbers, participants have managed to influence New Hampshire through public protests and government involvement, among other means, they said last week.

“Obviously, we’re a little impatient, and we wanted everyone to move here right away. But we’re getting more involved every day,” said Carla Gericke, the project president. “Freedom is popular.”

In Keene, hundreds of demonstrators have drawn police and media attention in recent years for public marijuana protests, among other civil actions. And in Concord, as many as 12 project members have brought their fight for individual freedoms and limited government to the Legislature.

But after a decade, the Free State Project’s greatest impact can perhaps best be measured by the theme of liberty re-emerging in the statewide dialogue, according to political leaders and analysts.

Last week, hundreds of project members and other pro-liberty activists gathered in Nashua for the group’s annual New Hampshire Liberty Forum, held Thursday through Sunday at the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

“New Hampshire has always been a strong, independent state, but they’ve certainly had an impact recently pushing issues of liberty and freedom,” said Jack Kimball, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party who fights for similar issues with his Granite State Patriots action committee.

“Even if the mobilization hasn’t quite lived up to the advanced billing, they have had an effect in that they’ve become a part of the conversation,” said Dean Spiliotes, a professor of political science at Southern New Hampshire University. “They’ve done a pretty good job in putting themselves into the discussion representing a particular, distinct view of libertarianism.”

Slow beginnings

Originally, project founders believed they’d reach the 20,000 mark by now.

Jason Sorens, then a Ph.D student at Yale University, conceived of the project in 2001 as a way to build a libertarian stronghold. Two years later, project members selected New Hampshire as its home site, choosing the state based on its small size and population, its large, representative government and its strong, independent nature, among other factors.

“Initially, I thought the whole ‘Live Free or Die’ thing was just lip service,” said Gericke, the project president, who arrived in 2005 from New York. “But the longer I’m here and the more people I meet, the more (I) realize there is a culture of rugged individualism here.”

Three years in, however, after several hundred members had migrated, organizers – who had hoped to reach 20,000 recruits within five years – did away with the deadline.

“What we found was what the people out there wanted to do was very different than how the project was structured,” then-President Amanda Phillips said at the time.

But those who arrived in New Hampshire began to make themselves known.

In Keene, the capital for many project members, organizers began gathering for regular marijuana protests in which dozens of activists openly smoked marijuana at the central square, among other public locations.

Several members were placed under arrest, and one woman was arrested for walking topless around town. Officers eventually dropped the charges.

The gatherings “went on for months. It got us a lot of attention,” said Ian Freeman, a blogger, radio host and project member who helped organize the events.

“There was a learning curve in getting used to how to deal with that sort of (protest). Our people are more experienced now,” Keene Police Lt. Steve Stuart said. “We had to develop an awareness of who they were and what they were about, what their strategies were.”

Elsewhere in the state, other activists took a more political approach.

In 2006, Joel Winters, R-Manchester, became the first open Free State member elected to the Legislature. And over the following years, the group’s numbers increased to four, five and eventually up to 12 representatives in the House of Representatives.

Together, they push laws promoting lower taxes and less government interference in fiscal and social issues, said Rep. Mark Warden, R-Manchester, who is serving his second term in the House.

The legislators “have helped encourage others who are not Free State Project to … try to avoid some of the common pitfalls of legislation,” said Warden, who moved from Las Vegas in 2007. “We’ve tried to encourage others to avoid trying to provide a legislative solution to every problem.”

Much of the members’ most aggressive legislation has fallen short. Last year, for instance, Warden co-sponsored efforts to de-criminalize marijuana and to do away with concealed weapons permits, among others, which passed the House but fell in the Senate.

But Free State members contributed to a number of victories, as well, Warden said, including the state budget, which cut spending by 10 percent under the guidance of House Speaker William O’Brien and other conservative leaders.

“They helped us get where we are,” Jane Aitken, co-founder of the New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition, said of the Free State Project. “We couldn’t get anybody to pay attention to us at the beginning, but they were out there calling for low taxes, a balanced budget. Now, everybody understands. You see it out in the mainstream.”

Good signs

The 2012 election changed the makeup of the Legislature. Democrats retained the governor’s office and Republicans lost their majority in the House, holding on to 179 of 400 seats.

Still, the Free State members maintained their numbers, holding onto about 12 seats, Gericke said.

“We were pretty happy with that,” she said. “It’s a good sign.”

Around the state, more project members are running for local office – school boards and boards of selectmen, among other positions. And the activists continue to make themselves known through protests and other civil actions.

In Keene, members have taken to “Robin Hooding,” feeding expired parking meters before municipal workers can issue parking tickets.

“There’s nothing illegal about it,” said Stewart, the Keene police lieutenant. “They’re more of a nuisance than anything.”

And officials around the state have taken notice of the members’ efforts.

Last month, Rep. Cynthia Chase, D-Keene, drew headlines around the state when she called the Free State Project “the single biggest threat the state is facing today.

“There is, legally, nothing we can do to prevent them from moving here to take over the state, which is their openly stated goal,” Chase wrote in a post on Blue Hampshire, a Democratic blog. “What we can do is to make the environment here so unwelcoming that some will choose not to come, and some may actually leave.”

Local project members have no plans to leave, however. Rather, they continue to recruit members to commit to moving to New Hampshire.

As of this week, 13,796 have signed the commitment pledge, including the 1,100 already in the state. Once that number reaches 20,000, the rest will flood the state en masse, bringing their dreams of minimal government and individual freedoms, Gericke said.

“I can’t even fathom what that will be like,” said Freeman, the Keene blogger and project member. “We’ve only had a thousand people here. … It’s really difficult for me to really grasp how much more of an impact thousands more will have.”

In the meantime, project members will continue to spread their message one vote, one protest and one conversation at a time, they said.

“It’s Gandhi who’s famous for saying, ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,’ ” Freeman said. “People can argue whether we’re between the laughing stage and the fighting, but either way they’re not ignoring us, and we’ve got some exciting things going on.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Berry on Twitter (Telegraph_JakeB).