Free State movement not embraced by all Granite Staters
Aaron Gill sees an inherent contradiction in the Free State Project and what he believes to be its stated mission, which is to get 20,000 people to move to New Hampshire from other states in order to establish a libertarian utopia where limited government exists only to protect individual rights – and little else.
It’s a project that Gill, a Democrat, believes will backfire on the Free State movement and its participants.
In New Hampshire, “we like to be left alone,” he said. “We don’t like to be told what to do.”
Gill, a native of the Granite State, ran for but lost the state House of Representatives seat that includes Goffstown, Weare and Deering in the Nov. 6 election. He lost the seat to two-time incumbent Republican Mark Warden, an avowed Free Stater who moved to New Hampshire five years ago from Las Vegas, Nev.
“I don’t consider Free Staters to be evil incarnate,” said Gill. “But you have folks coming in from other places trying to tell New Hampshire what to do. Their goal, I believe, is to have this state become a libertarian state.”
The libertarian way of thinking won converts in the Granite State long before Free State Project participants made the conscious decision, in 2003, to descend on New Hampshire and infiltrate the state’s political, business, social and spiritual fabric.
But it’s because the state’s political establishment has historically been sympathetic to libertarian ideas that Free Staters chose to set up shop here, where they could give form and function to their political and social experiment.
On its website, the organization explains why New Hampshire was chosen: “There’s no better place for freedom-loving Americans than New Hampshire ... in a vote that ended in September 2003, FSP participants chose New Hampshire because it has the lowest state and local tax burden in the continental U.S., the second-lowest level of dependence on federal spending in the U.S., a citizen legislature where state house representatives have not raised their $100 per year salary since 1889, the lowest crime levels in the U.S., a dynamic economy with plenty of jobs and investment, and a culture of individual responsibility indicated by, for example, an absence of seatbelt and helmet requirements for adults.”
Gill said he understands the allure that libertarianism can have – at one time in his life, he admits, he considered himself to be libertarian, vehemently questioning why government should have any say in the way people live their lives.
“I’m gay, and I didn’t want the government telling me I couldn’t get married,” Gill said. “But after a while I learned that the world doesn’t function that way. I guess I was really a Democrat all along but just didn’t realize it.”
For Gill, the Free State Project is more than your traditional New Hampshire live-and-let-live form of libertarianism. There is an activism to the Free State movement – and a determination to impose its will on a particular geographic region – that is unsettling to critics like Gill.
“It has a negative connotation to it,” Gill said. “I’m more of a live and let live kind of person, but there’s something different about this group of folks. “These are folks whose desire to change their surroundings into what they think local governance should be is so high, that it’s a different mindset entirely.”
Specifically, Gill accuses Free Staters of engaging in a type of political sleight of hand when it comes to legislating.
For example, he said during this last legislative session pro-gay marriage advocates thought they had an ally in the Free Staters when the issue of whether to repeal the law allowing gay marriage in New Hampshire surfaced.
But instead of flatly opposing the forces in favor of repealing gay marriage, Free Staters within the Legislature put forward a bill that called for altogether eliminating marriage as a state-recognized institution – a maneuver that Gill believed was a self-serving one on the part of the Free Staters.
“What their neighbors might want or desire – that’s not their primary concern,” said Gill. “These are folks who have a singular focus, and that’s to advance their cause, their mission.”
Democrats like Gill are not the only ones critical of the Free State Project; some Republicans have accused Free Staters of turning the state’s political tradition of tolerance toward opposing ideas on its ear.
Tony Soltani is an Epsom lawyer and was a state representative for many years before losing his seat in this most recent election to Dan McGuire and Mary Frambach. In a recent letter to the editor of The Bedford Bulletin, he accused Free Staters in the Legislature of heavy-handed political tactics.
“They passed a slew of laws without debate, cutting off opposition and ignoring experience, while the rest of us real Republicans screamed ‘unintended consequences,’” he said. “Now, they take pride in telling their constituents that they have filed 17 bills correcting the unintended consequences of their own goofball actions. There’s no shame admitting a mistake, but there should be no pride in it.”
Thus far, approximately 1,200 Free Staters have moved to New Hampshire, and estimates are that anywhere from 11 to 15 of them have been elected as lawmakers in the House of Representatives.
It’s difficult to determine who, out of the recently elected legislators, are Free Staters because few, if any, identify themselves as such in their official campaign literature.
And for some longtime New Hampshire residents, that alone is a reason to be suspicious of Free Staters and their movement.
Victoria Parmele has lived in New Hampshire for the last 30 years, and she sits on the Strafford County Regional Planning Commission as well as her own town’s planning board.
“I have personal experience dealing with some Free Staters at the local and regional level who have been extremely aggressive in trying to make sure that things go their way,” she said. “It (the Free State movement) does seem like libertarianism on steroids. There is an urgency to the movement, and also a sense of fatalism behind it which I think, in part, explains Free Staters’ absolute fascination with guns.”
Among the characteristics that Free Staters admire about the Granite State is its relatively unrestrictive gun laws.
State Rep. Warden, in previous legislative sessions, sponsored bills that would lessen the restrictions on gun laws.
Specifically, Warden voted in favor of HB210, otherwise known as the “Stand Your Ground” bill which eliminates a person’s duty to retreat when they perceive a threat or are threatened in a public setting, such as a shopping mall. Under previous state law, a person had no legal duty to retreat when threatened in their home, but HB210 expands that to apply to public spaces. Warden was in favor of HB 334, which would have allowed guns on college campuses and dormitories, as well as sports venues, state parks and beaches.
In addition, Warden voted in favor of eliminating licensing requirements to carry firearms “whether openly or concealed.”
Such legislation is at the core of the Free State movement, which aims to place the burdens of accountability and responsibility on the individual. And that can best be accomplished, according to libertarian principles, by reducing or eliminating regulation – both in the areas of business and personal behavior – and by reducing or eliminating local, state and federal taxes, which Free Staters see as little more than a form of indentured servitude to the government.
Survival of the fittest
Still, those critical of the Free State Project see the movement in a much less favorable light than what Free Staters themselves would describe.
“I’ve spoken to several Free Staters who’ve moved here, in part, because they see economic and social disaster ahead for the U.S. – so it will be survival of the fittest played out in New Hampshire,” said Parmele. “Their goal is to shrink government down to essentially nothing, including removing safety nets of all kinds, leaving us all to fend for ourselves. This is completely impractical in this complicated world, as well as cruel. The idea of the common good, beyond themselves and their own community, is largely irrelevant to them. To me, they are naive and narcissistic in their quest for liberty. It’s really disturbing to think about what 20,000 of them – assuming they are all serious about coming here – could do to New Hampshire.”
In what may seem like an odd bit of irony for some, most Free Staters who run for public office in New Hampshire run on the Republican ticket. And that is something that irritates Soltani.
In a recent post on his Facebook page, he said Free Staters give traditional New Hampshire Republicans a bad name.
“I am a real Republican,” Soltani wrote. “I have never been the libertarian or anything else for that matter.”
In the post, Soltani is critical of House leadership and its so-called “gang of Free Staters” who he accuses of “trampling civility” during official House business and for whom the rules of the House “were optional” and the state Constitution was “a mere suggestion.”