By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
American writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou wrote “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
However, it is one of the hardest lessons to learn, but New Hampshire citizens may be beginning to understand what Angelou meant.
Nearly two decades ago, former Gov. Craig Benson welcomed members of the Free State Project into his office and urged them to use New Hampshire as their home base in their quest to influence a small state’s political system and reframe government to their goals.
What the free staters were exposing was nothing new — perhaps a little more radicalized libertarianism — but what was new was the attempt to reformulate the state’s political and governmental structure into their own design.
Jason Sorens, then a doctoral candidate at Yale University, who is now at Saint Anselm College, devised the plan and envisioned that 20,000 people with like ideals would be enough to influence a small state to move in the direction of libertarianism.
Although their numbers are not yet close to 20,000 on the ground in New Hampshire, the group and its leaders have taken over the Republican majority in the New Hampshire legislature and achieved far more than anyone could have imagined in the past two years, including an expansive school choice program that is costing the state an unexpected $9 million the first year of operation, as well as laws prohibiting the state, organizations including healthcare nonprofits, and businesses from requiring COVID-19 vaccines for workers or customers.
They are also responsible for restrictions on abortion services and eliminating gubernatorial powers during a declared emergency.
And they were behind efforts to stop discussions of racial or sexual controversial issues in the state’s public schools, but this year failed to move those prohibitions to public universities and colleges.
The group and its supporters have been successful at infiltrating not only the state legislature, but also local select, school and planning boards although they ran into a bit of a brick wall this spring in local elections when most of their candidates for school boards were defeated.
The plan for what the Free State Project accomplished in New Hampshire the past two years, in the federal government over the past three decades, and in other states like Idaho, Texas and Florida, was developed decades ago after the Brown versus the Board of Education US Supreme Court decision when Virginia sought a way to avoid providing an equal education to black students.
Pulitzer-prize-winning economist James M. Buchanan, often called the architect of the radical right, developed a proposal for school choice that also included a vision of government as a fee-for-services enterprise instead of broad-based taxation. He had the financial backing of many of the wealthiest moguls in the country.
Together they envisioned an oligarchy where they would make the decisions, not the citizens of the country who always voted in their own self-interest for things like public schools, social safety nets and other hallmarks of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.
In essence they wanted a new kind of feudalism where they would control almost all the wealth — or at least be able to keep it — while the proletariat would have little opportunity to advance.
One goal was to end public education which was expensive and required way too much tax money for this group.
They quickly learned their ideas were not popular and went underground, instead developing chairs and programs at universities intended to produce more conservatives and libertarians. The higher education programs were funded by the massive wealth of the oligarchs including the Koch brothers who were key instigators in the plan to change America.
The strategists also went to work to turn the majority of Democratically controlled state houses over to Republican control and once they did that, Congressional districts along with state House and Senate districts were gerrymandered to maintain GOP majorities.
The plan took decades to achieve, but we are now seeing the fruits of their labor. Although only one Republican president has won the popular vote since 1992, Republicans have largely controlled Congress and a majority of State Houses around the country.
All of this is explained more precisely in Nancy MacLean’s book “Democracy in Chains.”
In New Hampshire, free staters began winning seats in the Legislature once they began migrating here, but were few in numbers at first and hid who they were.
The number of free staters and those with like beliefs in the legislature grew and the 2020 election produced a number significant enough to control the GOP caucus and to make free stater Jason Osborne, R-Auburn, House Majority Leader.
The group also developed strongholds around the state including in Keene, in the Grafton-Croydon area, in Hudson, Manchester and in Belknap County where four of its representatives were among the 13 voting in favor of CACR 32 which proposed New Hampshire’s secession from the United States to become a sovereign nation.
The legislature was not the only venue for the radical libertarians to push their agenda.
This spring a snowstorm held attendance at the Croydon school meeting to about 35 voters.
Town selectman and free stater Ian Underwood moved to cut the school district budget by more than 50 percent and his motion passed on a 24-10 vote.
His wife is school board chair Judy Underwood.
The vote meant the town’s school house would be closed next school year and the district would turn to a private education provider with uncertified teachers and “learning pods.”
The town was in an uproar and eventually overturned the decision on a 377-2 vote at a special school district meeting.
More recently the libertarian-leaning, all-Republican Belknap County representatives, which comprise the Belknap delegation, has taken on the Gunstock Area Commission over the Gunstock Ski Area, which is county-owned.
Lead by Reps. Norm Silber, Mike Sylvia and Greg Hough, the delegation has appointed two new commissioners in the last six months giving them a majority, although neither of the new members has any experience in the industry.
The group does not believe the government should own ski areas and instead has pushed for a private company to take over operations of the ski area and recreation facilities and has sought greater control.
Lawsuits have been filed and contentious debates with the public have darkened what the commission envisioned several years ago as a bright future for the ski area.
Last week the management of the facility resigned en masse giving their 20-day notice only to show up for work the next morning to learn they had been fired and the locks were being changed.
The locals who grew up learning to ski at Gunstock or who enjoyed the resources it provides are afraid the delegation will lease the area to Vail, which leases state-owned Mount Sunapee Ski Area.
Last winter, many believe the company oversold season passes and the road leading to the area was clogged with cars and the slopes were clogged with skiers.
The concern over Gunstock spurred a bipartisan group to form a political action committee to target some of the more radical Belknap representatives who have pushed for greater control and a private company to lease Gunstock. The county nursing home has also been impacted by the delegation’s decisions.
The local newspaper is full of letters to the editors about the situation and larger publications like the Boston Globe have taken an interest in the controversy.
But it should not be a surprise what these folks want. They said it before they began arriving here 20 years ago: personal liberty, low or no taxes, no regulations and small or non-existent government.
They have not changed their views, but perhaps the majority of New Hampshire citizens are changing their view about them.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.