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Libertarian campaign in N.H. falls short of expectations

Free State Project draws happy few to Granite State

It was just over a year ago that the Free State Project chose New Hampshire as its home-to-be, claiming 5,000 liberty seekers were ready to move there and create their utopia.

By 2006, the quasi-libertarian group hoped to have roughly 20,000 people committed to relocate to the "live free or die" state, where seat belts are optional and there is no state income tax. The mass migration, they said, could start any time.

But so far, only about 6,000 people have committed to move. About 100 have actually relocated.

"It's less people than originally expected, but we do have quite a number of people who have moved," said Calvin Pratt, who serves as the coordinator for the Free State Project for the Merrimack Valley area. He moved from West Trenton, N.J., to Goffstown, N.H., a year ago to support movement founder Jason Sorens.

Pratt said he expects that in 2006, the 20,000-person goal will be downgraded. "I doubt the project will end, but it will be a reevaluation," he said.

When the Free State Project began, the idea was for a collection of people with similar political beliefs to choose one state where they would be able to have a voting block, a shared identity, and a common interest in supporting mostly libertarian beliefs.

On Oct. 1, 2003, Sorens and his group announced that New Hampshire had beaten out Wyoming and eight other finalists for the Free State designation.

It was decided that the group's mascot would be the porcupine -- an animal that is "cute, nonaggressive, but you don't want to step on them," according to the organization's website.

Former governor Craig Benson applauded the movement, saying its ideas matched well with the Republican agenda. But some officials in New Hampshire had concerns about whether an influx of 20,000 would benefit the rapidly growing state.

The low turnout has calmed these concerns. But Free Staters maintain they are making an impact on the local political scene, and believe more liberty seekers are on the way. They don't expect 20,000 -- certainly not by 2006 -- but they are looking to spread the word that those who made the move are happy they did.

Free State leaders say most of the transplants have moved to the Merrimack Valley area or the Seacoast. A handful settled in Keene, probably because some of the most active group supporters already lived in the town, according to project representatives. Just a few moved to the northern part of the state.

One Seacoast transplant is Mike Fisher, 23, a former resident of Burlington, Vt., who said he wasn't interested in politics before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Just after the attacks, Fisher said he "jumped on a bandwagon supporting Bush."

But the Iraq war changed his mind. He became a Democrat. Then he changed his mind again.

"Democrats are all talk," he said. "They don't really stand up for what they believe in."

Fisher now considers himself an "anarcho-capitalist," and said he does not believe in any form of government. For that reason, he does not vote.

Fisher said he heard about the Free State Project on the Internet, and that his move was based on a desire to start a business. He learned through the group that in New Hampshire, he could avoid regulations and fees associated with starting a company in Vermont. This past April, Fisher and his wife moved to Newmarket, where he runs Computer Troubleshooters.

Fisher has spearheaded one project for the Free State group, a scholarship offered to those who want to home-school their children or send them to private school. He just filed for nonprofit status.

"We all do different things," he said of his peers in the Free State community. "We have so many projects going on it's crazy."

Edwina Houlmiere moved with her husband and children from Nevada, near Lake Tahoe, to Stratford, N.H., last July. Houlmiere said she first heard about the Free State Project from a conservative political commentator on talk radio.

Houlmiere said that not only do they find New Hampshire more suitable for their beliefs, but they have found it to be a more social, welcoming place than Nevada. Now that they know the state, they have plans to move to either Keene or the Seacoast.

"It was beautiful where we were, but here is beautiful, too," she said. "The trees here are just incredible."

Those who have already made the Free State move agree they have a better social life, one of the unexpected perks of relocating. Most belong to the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance.

Dave Mincin, who runs the Seacoast Free State group called the "Seacoast Porcupines," said making transplants feel welcome has been part of his job. Mincin said there are political events and social activities, but that mostly the members reach out to one another and have started to participate in the same causes.

"I love it," he said. "To be honest, I've never been associated with a nicer group of people. Quite frankly, we're the new kids on the block and we've been very well received."

Mincin, who moved from Pittsburgh to Dover, N.H., last February, said the goal of the group was never to become simply a voting block. It was to become part of the New Hampshire demographic as a whole, spreading the Free State beliefs to local government and community organizations.

"We're more about coming to New Hampshire to be good neighbors," he said.

One group that said it has felt the effects of the Free State move is the state chapter of the National Rifle Association, the Gun Owners of New Hampshire. Spokesman Sam Cohen said he cannot quantify how many new members of his organization are Free Staters, but that he has met a number of people who moved for the cause. He said the two groups have a good relationship, with many members of Gun Owners signing on as friends of the Free State Project.

Katie Paine, former Durham town councilor, expressed concerns when New Hampshire was first chosen because she worried about how the Free State Project would affect the housing crunch in New Hampshire. She said it hasn't.

"I personally haven't seen it on the Seacoast at all," Paine said. "The Seacoast has grown, but it's not like it's full of libertarians. It doesn't strike me as a Free Stater market. The people moving to the Seacoast are buying $400,000 condos."

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