Saturday, August 21, 2004

LANCASTER, N.H. - Thousands of voters who say the country’s two-party system has become too homogenous, bureaucratic and inept have begun a pilgrimage to New England with the dream of starting a new party that will become a national force and unite legions of the equally disenfranchised.

“Most elections are like trying to get lunch out of a vending machine,” said Philip Boncer, 41, a biomedical engineer from San Diego. “You have choices, but they’re all bad for you. Democrats are increasing regulations and the strain on business, and Republicans are increasing moral laws.”

The movement, known as the Free State Project, was started in late 2001 and now has about 6,000 members. It also has an ambitious plan to more than triple its membership and become firmly entrenched in New Hampshire politics by 2011.

For Keith Murphy, a legislative aide for Maryland Democratic state Sen. George Della, the decision to become part of the movement and migrate to New Hampshire came after a constituent he was helping with Medicare benefits died while recovering from cancer.

Mr. Murphy, 29, said the elderly woman needed a nutritional supplement to complete her recovery at home, but federal guidelines mandated that she get her dosages at a hospital.

She died at home in mid-December, and Mr. Murphy formally resigned the same day.

“In our dream world, we’d like to see Medicare gone,” he said. “It’s inefficient, ineffective and expensive. The private marketplace can do a lot better job of providing medical care.”

Mr. Murphy said the group members chose New Hampshire from among 10 states because it has no state income tax, the local school systems are free of state mandates and it has a culture of self-sufficiency and libertarian ideals.

“It is what America was supposed to be,” said Mr. Murphy, who plans to move after earning his graduate degree in urban planning from the University of Maryland in December.

Members also thought the state’s rugged landscape, notoriously cold winters and motto of “Live Free or Die” was the ideal setting for the movement.

“We know it’s going to snow, and it’s going to be a [bear] of a winter, and we don’t care,” said Kristine Brooks, a Free State member and Mr. Boncer’s fiancee.

Limited government

Organizers say their primary goals are to limit government, reduce taxes and increase personal liberties. If the plan works, they say, other states will have to follow or lose residents and their tax dollars.

After voting on New Hampshire last September, the group held its first gathering there. About 300 members met at a campground in the White Mountains for the inaugural Porcupine Festival — named after the group mascot, which they say is a gentle creature but well-prepared when others try stepping on its back.

While there, they met with Gov. Craig Benson, a Republican, who has called the group a “friend” and has welcomed it to the state. He has also appointed members to a task force on government efficiency, but Democrats have attacked his association with Free State during this election year and he had stopped short of endorsing the group.

Among the disaffected are Washington residents and political exiles, most of them libertarians.

“Right now, people think there are two ways to do it — the Democratic way or the Republican way,” said Miss Brooks, a Californian who plans to close her business selling hand-painted yarns. “They get so entrenched in the Washington way, and nothing really happens, and you get in this terrible situation where all this money is spent and nothing really happens.”

Two group members are already New Hampshire state representatives and new arrivals such as Calvin Pratt are making scorecards ranking each of the state’s 24 senators and 400 state representatives on their “pro-liberty” voting records.

Eight of the senators received F’s, 11 received D’s, one got a C, two received B’s and one receive an incomplete grade.

State Sen. John Gallus, a Republican, was the only senator to receive an A.

Mr. Pratt and his wife, Karen, arrived in Goffstown, N.H., from Chicago in December, the day before the first Nor’easter of the winter. Mrs. Pratt, 44, quit her job as a senior executive at Merrill Lynch so the couple could move, and her severance package is paying the bills and the mortgage on their new house.

Mrs. Pratt is the treasurer and an organizer of Free State and the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance. She calls herself more of a “nuts and bolts” person than her husband, who is a self-taught political ideologue. Her interests in government are more immediate, about how the system affects lives.

Mr. Pratt, 53, runs his own Internet sales company and has quickly become one of the most active Free State and the Liberty Alliance members.

The Pratts and Amanda Phillips, the group’s president and spokeswoman, are among the five Free State members appointed to the committee on government efficiency.

“Liberty is like oxygen,” Miss Phillips said. “It’s so important to me that I’m willing to pack up everything and move and make a career change.”

Miss Phillips favors the privatization of government functions and allowing the free market to meet all needs, but says: “I’ll probably never see my anarchist utopia … but I’m willing to ride the freedom train as far as other people want to.”

No easy road

Despite the enthusiasm and intermediate successes, competing against the more powerful and wealthier Democrats and Republicans will be difficult.

Miss Phillips and some Free State members — including founder Jason Sorens, 27, a political philosophy lecturer at Yale University — have no immediate plans to come to New Hampshire, and right now fewer than 100 members have done so, with most waiting until the group has reached its goal of 20,000 members.

Miss Phillips said she intends to move to New Hampshire, but right now cannot because of her 8-year-old daughter and a well-paying financial job at a Fortune 500 company in Boston.

For the project to succeed, the group must expand recruiting to include more traditional libertarian groups, though Tampa, Fla., lawyer Tim Condon and others know it will be difficult.

“It’s not easy to persuade people to leave home and go somewhere where it’s cold in the winter, to alter their lives and change the world,” Mr. Condon said. “We’ve got to find committed people who are excited about liberty.”

He said some libertarians have even gone as far as saying Free State members are going to “freeze in the dark.”


Refining, rehearsing

As a result, the group has begun refining and rehearsing its message.

“Over the last 30 years, libertarians have not had much of an impact,” said Mr. Boncer, who delivered his practice speech while dressed in black boots, cargo pants and a black T-shirt that read “Extremely toxic.”

“We’re too scattered, and there are too few of us who remember what freedom is about anymore,” he continued, before launching into the group’s mission statement.

Miss Phillips then stood and gave a critique.

“Great job mentioning the Web site,” she said. “That’s something we always want to do. And Phil mentioned it like three times.”

Miss Phillips encouraged members to use the term “we” instead of “I” or “they.”

Their attention then turned to potential new members. They made a running list with libertarians, gun-rights advocates and home-schoolers at the top. Next came groups against taxes, groups for legalizing marijuana and groups promoting homosexuality or other “lifestyle alternatives.”

After about two hours, Mr. Condon asked what has become the defining question for many members.

“How do we respond to people who say, ‘You’re for incest, heroin and bestiality, right?’”

Miss Phillips said only that members can do what they want when in New Hampshire, then returned to discussing the group’s goals of moving 20,000 “freedom-loving people” to the state.

A spectrum of beliefs

Members hold to a wide variety of beliefs, from Mr. Boncer and Miss Brooks’ atheism to Floyd Shackelford’s devout Christianity.

“The Bible is very clear that the only purpose of the state is to be a terror to those who do evil,” said Mr. Shackelford, 45, a self-employed computer programmer from Troy, Ala., who will move to New Hampshire with his wife and three children.

“It’s not supposed to be a nanny to those who will not work for themselves.” he said, reciting the Bible passage Romans 13 to support his position. “I guess I am a missionary at heart. If I have freedom, I have liberty to share my faith with my homosexual neighbor, with my prostitute neighbor. Under tyranny, I don’t have that opportunity, because it’s hate speech. … As long as I have liberty, I can go and wrestle with other people about spiritual matters.”

Miss Phillips wants Free State to remain unattached to one cause or point of view. The group’s goal is simply to facilitate a mass migration to one place with the primary goal of advancing freedom and reducing government, she said.

Image problems

But the broad range of views among libertarians, especially on social and moral issues, has created some image problems for the group.

Larry Pendarvis, of Brandon, Fla., was kicked out of the group after causing an uproar in Grafton, a small town of 1,200 in the center of New Hampshire.

Mr. Pendarvis proposed that 200 members move there and “take over” the town government.

Once that was done, Mr. Pendarvis said, they would pull Grafton from the school district, suspend the planning board and stop enforcing drug and prostitution laws, which he called “victimless crimes.”

Most members insist they do not want to take over the government and have no plans to settle in a specific area. They say their first priority is to be good neighbors, but the incident in Grafton has made them appear otherwise.

“If anything is going to beat us, it is going to be us beating ourselves,” said Mr. Pratt, who insists he will remain the same, whether the group succeeds or fails.

“Nothing changes for me, because I’m not leaving New Hampshire, and I’m going to abide by [Free State’s] principles,” he said.

D.C. residents Adam Rick, 23, and his 24-year-old wife, Kate, also are moving, no matter what.

After the festival, they spent a week in New Hampshire looking at houses before returning home. They hope to be settled by next summer.

Mr. Rick is a computer programmer who does most of the work on the group’s Web site, and he is trying to launch his own Web-based business.

Mrs. Rick works as a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, a D.C. think tank. She recently took over as Free State’s coordinator for the D.C.-Baltimore region.

Still, the couple has not invested all their hope in the group — or at least in its overnight success.

“I’m not optimistic about seeing significant changes at the state level for a long time, at least 20 years,” Mr. Rick said over homemade pizza at the couple’s high-rise apartment in Northwest. “But it’s OK. It’s a great hope to think about any change.”

Near the door, a homemade sign peeped out from behind a shelf, a remnant from tax day, April 15, when Mr. and Mrs. Rick had demonstrated in front of the local post office.

“Hate Taxes?” the sign read. “Move with us to New Hampshire.”

At the festival in New Hampshire, Mr. Rick looked around the campfire and said, “I see this as a long-term thing. I’m going to be living around and working with these people for the next 60, 80 years.”

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