Last night the Rockingham County Democrats hosted Zandra Rice Hawkins of Granite State Progress, an “ultra extreme” left-wing advocacy group reportedly funded by out-of-state special interests. GSP has been tracking the FSP since 2008 with a program called "Free State Project Watch" (complete with scary 'wolf in sheep’s carcass' caricature).
About 80 people were in attendance, including ten to fifteen Free Staters (believe it or not, I don't actually know all two thousand of us).
At the beginning, the Free Staters were invited to stand and introduce ourselves (which many of us did). Throughout the night, Ms. Rice Hawkins invited us to respond to questions, although several Democrats in the audience were frustrated that we weren't given more opportunity to explain our individual views in our own words.
The concept that seemed to cause Ms. Rice Hawkins the most confusion is that Free Staters, like all groups of two or more people, are not a philosophically or tactically monolithic group with dogma and scripture dictating our every opinion and action. We don't have 'marching orders,' we don’t have ‘members’ (we have participants, although GSP seems unable to grasp this distinction), and we do not ‘organize’ beyond promoting the idea of activists moving to the state and helping them to settle in and connect with other like-minded people. Many people who share our views on the appropriate role of government, like the repeatedly-mentioned new Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, are not technically Free Staters, but have many Free Stater friends, and attend our events (I wish he would self-identify as one of us!).
Ms. Rice Hawkins also mentions several OTHER organizations, claiming they fall under the FSP. This is untrue, and I respectfully ask her to stop doing so when speaking about the FSP. The very fact these organizations and groups exist underscores my point that we are not a monolithic group. People move here, and get involved in the projects they are passionate about.
The chief complaint of the evening, that even makes it into Ms Rice Hawkin's "one sentence that sums up the threat", is that the original proposal penned by Jason Sorens in 2001 spoke at some length about using "the threat of secession as leverage" to win more autonomy from the federal government, for example in areas such as the disastrous drug war.
Secession was dropped as a part of the FSP mission before the FSP was even formally organized, but given that we are (again) not a monolithic bloc, some Free Staters would say that independence is, eventually, an option worth pursuing. Others don't. This has long been a research interest of Dr. Sorens (who is currently the chair of the FSP board and teaches at Dartmouth College); in fact he recently published a book called "Secessionism," a rather dry, academic tome discussing the nuances and interplay between decentralized regional autonomy and the desire for independence in places like Catalonia and Scotland.
Ms. Rice Hawkins wants to conflate those Free Staters who support independence with the FSP’s mission because it provides a “scary narrative.” She does concede that the former FSP president joined a different 501(c)3 educational nonprofit dedicated to educating Granite Staters about the advantages of more independence from the federal government. If the FSP was a secessionist movement (again, it isn’t) then why would this switch have happened?
NH's 'Natural' Climate
The other main point that was brought up both during the presentation and during the Q&A was about the original nature of the state's politics. Some Democrat natives said they felt New Hampshire's pre-existing political climate was progressive and liberal, and we Free Staters are coming here to impose our outside agenda, even as Ms.Rice Hawkins admits she moved to NH from somewhere else, as did more than 60% of the NH legislature and the population at large. This is such an obvious fallacy: just ask the other half of the state that felt like the foundation of the New Hampshire Advantage used to be low taxes and less bureaucratic red-tape. While we have more than two thousand movers so far, we have almost 2,700 Free Staters who already lived here that signed the same pledge to work toward the creation of a society in which the maximum role of government is the protection of individuals' rights to life, liberty, and property. (Does this sound like you? Check out our mission to learn more.)
Another charge leveled at some Free Staters is the lack of transparency about why they have come to the state, and what policy positions they really hold when they're running for state and local office. This has happened in the past, where a Free Stater either doesn't proactively identify or fudges when asked if they are a Free Stater. There is some semantic wiggle room here, and it is ultimately the personal choice of the candidate, but it seems to me to be a less than honorable and effective strategy. I believe we should be proud of our brand! There are so many known Free Staters who have won office, it's okay to be 'out'. (BTW, who ever thought it would be progressives bullying and “outing” people against their will?) Win on the strength of your arguments. If you don't, GSP maintains a database of "one- to two-thousand" Free Staters that they use to vet state and local candidates, that they claim to have built with hours and hours of painstaking research for every candidate for state office (for both parties) in the last three election cycles.
I have a question for GSP members… do they disclose their ultra-extreme, left-wing, high tax- and-spend agenda when they run for office? Do they disclose their views which are in direct contradiction to the U.S and NH Constitutions?
Lessons Learned and Future Plans
Given the one-sided bias to the format, I think it makes sense to start doing more FSP town hall-style info sessions around the state, so we give Granite Staters an opportunity to hear from the horse’s mouth(s) what we actually think and why, while making it perfectly clear that FSP Inc’s sole mission is to attract activists to the state, and that participants work in various OTHER organizations to pursue their individual goals. We've done a few of these in the past, and they went well. I offered to the chair of the Rockingham Co. Democrats to return to let us present our side of the story, he said he'd think about it. I really hope he invites us back. We don’t always have to agree, but dialogue on a local level is a great step towards building a 'civil' society in which the maximum role of government is the protection of individuals' rights to life, liberty, and property.