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Drew Cline: If Free Staters can help it, everything in NH will be awesome

March 04. 2015 9:56PM

Last year, the Free State Project’s Liberty Forum, held at the Crowne Plaza in Nashua, felt a little crowded. About 350 people attended, according to organizers. Today, the event kicks off in a bigger venue, the Radisson in downtown Manchester. Organizers expect about 500 attendees. Roughly half of them will be “liberty lovers” who do not live in New Hampshire. Yet.

Some of the out-of-staters showed up last weekend to participate in Tour New Hampshire, a series of self-guided tours throughout the week offered by the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance, a separate organization not part of the Free State Project. That there is a tour of New Hampshire organized by locals to cater to Free Staters is an indication of the group’s increasing clout.

For the uninitiated, the Free State Project is a movement to relocate 20,000 “liberty-loving” people to New Hampshire. Participants chose the Granite State in 2003 for its low taxes, citizen Legislature, relative independence from Washington, D.C., economy and overall quality of life. Since 2003, 1,438 Free Staters have moved to New Hampshire, according to founder Jason Sorens, a lecturer at Dartmouth College. Counting the 273 who moved here before 2003, a total of 1,711 official Free Staters already live in New Hampshire.

Per the Free State pledge, members do not have to move here until a full 20,000 people sign up. So far, 16,493 have signed, per the official count. But Granite Staters do not have to wait for a wave of 20,000 libertarians to see the Free State Project change New Hampshire. It already has.

The state’s nano brewery trend was fueled in large part by Free Staters. Small breweries in Merrimack (Able Ebenezer), Manchester (Candia Road) and Concord (Area 23) were founded by Free Staters. A few years ago, the state had no law allowing very small breweries to operate. Kevin Bloom of Area 23 helped draft a nano brewery bill, which was introduced by then-Rep. Mark Warden, R-Manchester, also a Free Stater. The bill passed and took effect in 2011, leading to a blossoming of small breweries that has garnered regional and even national attention.

In state poltiics, Free Staters have made themselves a small but powerful force. It is unlikely that Bill O’Brien would have become House Speaker or Jack Kimball Republican Party chairman without the effort of many active Free Staters and their libertarian-leaning allies. Free Staters have won seats in the Legislature and on local boards and commissions. But one of their biggest impacts has come through the courts.

In 2010, Free Stater Carla Gericke was arrested by Weare police for video-taping officers who had stopped a friend’s car (she was in a following car) late at night. An attorney originally from South Africa, Gericke knew she had the right to record the stop. “As an attorney, I thought none of this is right, you can’t do this,” she said in an interview.

Gericke was the wrong person to arrest on a trumped up charge.

“Having grown up in South Africa during the Apartheid era sort of informs my view of what government should be like and how people should be treated,” she said. “Coming from a police state environment, I’m probably hypersensitive to it.”

She filed a 32-count lawsuit against the town, which fairly quickly dropped the charges against her. She proceeded with the suit anyway, hoping to stop what had been a pattern of police officers arresting people for recording them, only to drop the charges later. In a landmark case in federal court last year, she won. The court firmly upheld the right of citizens to make video recordings of on-duty police officers.

Though Gericke’s name is recorded for posterity in a federal civil rights case, she could be considered a sort of moderate in a movement that has more people who want to be left alone than who want to agitate. The antics of some Free Staters in Keene have given a general impression that these people might be spotted easily by their alternative clothing or by their shouting, mostly at government employees. In truth, most Free Staters who have moved here have settled more or less inconspicuously into their communities.

There are large contingents of Free Staters in Portsmouth and in Manchester and its suburbs. They have families and good jobs, and they are not really agitators, either politically or socially. Some have run for and won office, but most just go about their lives. They might open carry a firearm to the grocery store, but otherwise one would be hard pressed to pick them out from a crowd.

Gericke, now president of the Free State Project, says there has been some tension between the members who just want to live peacefully with their neighbors and those, most notably in Keene, who fancy themselves social or political rebels.

There is “a challenge of believing in individualism and you should be allowed to do what is important to you, and also brand management,” she said on Wednesday while putting finishing touches on the preparations for the Liberty Forum. “Certainly, I think I personally have been trying to focus more on the narrative that there are a lot of people here. People hear about Keene a lot, but there are a lot of us here, there are techies, parents, people with jobs.”

Describing most Free Staters, she said: “They move here, they get a dog and a truck and a gun and eventually they have a family.”Gericke admits that getting 20,000 libertarians to move to New Hampshire will be a challenge even if 20,000 sign the pledge. But the number might be reached, over the long term, in the more traditional way. As she noted, Free Staters are having children. Many are raising kids here, and often they home school them.

Politically, Free Staters are not a monolithic force. They call themselves “liberty-loving” rather than “libertarian” for good reason.

So many people we are attracting are sort of disillusioned by the left-right paradigm,” Gericke said. “We have big L Libertarian Party types, we have little l libertarians who don’t really vote, we have anarchists, we have voluntarists.

“I would say all subscribe to non-aggression principles, which is sort of the golden rule. Mostly anti-war, although we do have a lot of vets. It’s a very big tent. I think all interactions between persons should be voluntary. Churches and institutions and family and community, more of that. In some way it’s sort of an old-fashioned philosophy.”

That is evident in the group’s social media promotions. The project has become something of an unofficial ambassador for New Hampshire within the broader liberty movement. Its tweets promoting New Hampshire often focus on the quality of life — scenic beauty, low crime rate — rather than politics. Sorens, the Free State Project founder, said in an interview that the movement has exceeded his expectations. “When I started it, I didn’t think anyone would move before we reached 20,000 commitments, and I also thought we only had a 50-50 chance of ever reaching 20,000 commitments. Now we’re about two years from reaching 20,000 at current rates, and I anticipate that in seven or eight years, we’ll have about 6,000 movers total.”

Some of those movers will be at the Liberty Forum, which opens today in Manchester, checking out the state and deciding whether this is the place for them. As most Granite Staters have done (more than half the population was born outside the state), they are likely to decide that it is. And who can blame them?

Gericke says that even if only a few thousand Free Staters move here, “with the mindset and the energy we can still keep New Hampshire awesome.” The State of New Hampshire has hired professional marketers to come up with slogans that will attract tourists. Gericke came up with one on her own that carries more punch than any of the pricey state gimmicks: “Keep New Hampshire awesome.”

Yes, let’s.

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. His column runs on Thursdays. His Twitter handle is @Drewhampshire.

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