What's next for the Free State movement?
The logo of the Free State Project includes a crudely drawn image of a porcupine, a symbol that became part of the movement’s iconography after an online vote by early project participants.
The porcupine won out over more conventional symbols of liberty, such as the “Don’t Tread on Me” snake, menacing and coiled, depicted in the early American flag designed by Gen. Christopher Gadsden.
According to the Free State Project’s website, the porcupine was chosen by popular vote of its members because something more original and “public relations-friendly” was desired to emphasize the “freshness” of the movement’s approach.
“Porcupines are cute and nonaggressive, but you certainly don’t want to step on them,” explains the official literature of the organization.
There’s little doubt that the Free State Project has established a foothold in New Hampshire. But even one of its more high-profile adherents acknowledges that there’s work to do in order to get the organization instantly recognized by the average Granite Stater.
“From what I’ve found, most people in New Hampshire don’t even know about the Free State Project outside of the political class,” said Mark Warden, a Free Stater who has twice won election to the state House of Representatives, most recently on Nov. 6, when he was elected to represent Goffstown, Weare and Deering on the Republican Party ticket. “For the most part, people I’ve met like the idea (of the Free State movement), but there’s no real sense of recognition,” added Warden, who moved to New Hampshire from Las Vegas, Nev., five years ago.
The Free State Project began in 2001 – the brainchild of Jason Sorens, who at the time was a Yale University Ph.D candidate. Sorens was at first a secessionist, an idea that has since been renounced by the Free State Project.
In looking ahead at whether the experiment will gain traction in the Granite State, it makes sense to look at the statistics.
As of today, according to the group’s website, there are 13,501 Free State participants. Approximately 1,119 of them have taken up residence in New Hampshire.
For some, those numbers are hardly auspicious. Critics are quick to note that despite being founded more than 10 years ago, the Free State Project has yet to hit its goal of 20,000 participants moving to New Hampshire.
An informal poll of area legislators taken by The Goffstown News may yield some insight into the Free State Project’s current visibility.
When asked to comment on the Free State Project and its goal of getting 20,000 libertarian-minded people to move to New Hampshire, here’s what the lawmakers said:
• Rep. David Hess from Hooksett said he wasn’t aware of any Free Staters from Hooksett and hasn’t given the movement much thought. “Like any group, it’s composed of some great people and some not so great people,” he said. “I think they tend to exaggerate their influence.”
• Bedford Rep. John Graham said, “I understand the background of it,” adding “it doesn’t seem like they stand out.”
• Bedford Rep. John Cebrowski said he’d never heard of the Free State Project, but considers Rep. Mark Warden a libertarian-leaning legislator and “a good guy.”
• Salem Rep. Marilinda Garcia said, “I have heard about it and I know some members of the Legislature are (Free State participants), but other than that I don’t know too much about it.”
• Hooksett Rep. Todd Smith said he didn’t know enough about the Free State Project to comment about it.
If the Free State Project is not as high profile as it could be in New Hampshire, that may be by design.
When asked why Free Staters who run for political office in New Hampshire don’t identify themselves as such in their official campaign literature, Warden, the state representative for Goffstown, Weare and Deering, dismissed the need to do so.
“First of all, I challenge that premise,” said Warden. “It sounds like one of the talking points of the Democratic Party. That’s like saying we should have to identify ourselves as being Catholic or Protestant if we decide to run for political office. No one would demand that, so why should it be done in this case?”
Putting labels on Free State participants can be a tricky endeavor, given that not all Free Staters are in agreement about important issues facing the state and the nation.
Amanda Bouldin is a Free State Project participant who moved here from Dallas, Texas. For a brief time, she was a member of the tea party, but turned her back on that organization when she encountered what she described as “irreconcilable differences” with the party’s ideals.
“I knew a couple of thousand people that I shared values with were already here (in New Hampshire), so I don’t feel like an invader,” Bouldin said. “I don’t see how it’s any different from people from Massachusetts moving here to pay lower taxes, and probably people from New York and New Jersey would do the same thing.”
For Bouldin, the idea of liberty is at the core of the Free State Project. And it’s an idea that means different things to different people, she said.
Once members move to New Hampshire, “they pursue liberty however they find (it) suitable,” Bouldin said. “Some members address the goal through politics, but not all.”
While the Free State Project may appear to be a loose and decentralized band of like-minded individuals from across the United States, the Internet and the group’s corporate structure as a nonprofit lend it a measure of cohesion.
The Free State Project is run by a board of directors as well as individuals called “Organizers” who, according to the website, are empowered to make high-level decisions in areas such as research, technology and publicity.
Free State Project President Carla Gericke, who describes herself as a “recovering lawyer,” moved to New Hampshire with her husband from Manhattan in 2008, during a blizzard.
“We are originally from South Africa – I won a green card in the diversity lottery while I was in law school – and we landed in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-nineties,” she said. “We both ended up working in the tech sector and were hit hard when the Internet bubble burst in 2000-01.”
When asked to comment on the charge that Free Staters are simply trying to take over the state’s political apparatus, Gericke said that’s simply incorrect.
“I love this question,” Gericke said. “First, I think we should establish where the criticism is coming from. If it is from folks who benefit from the largesse of government, I would caution others to take it with a pinch of salt. Secondly, 20,000 people cannot ‘take over’ a state with a population of more than a million. Even when the move is triggered (when the 20,000 pledge signers are expected to come), FSP participants will make up less than 1.5 percent of the entire population. Third, did you know that two-thirds of the 2010-12 legislators were not New Hampshire natives? That Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen aren’t from here originally? Are they trying to ‘take over’? Lastly, the FSP itself is not a political action organization, it’s not tied to any political party, and we do not run candidates for election. What individual participants do once they get here is up to them.”
And what will happen to the FSP once all participants move to the Granite State?
“The project itself will dissolve shortly after the five-year moving deadline, having accomplished its sole mission to recruit 20,000 liberty lovers to move to one state,” according to the organization’s website.
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