‘Free Staters’ roil New Hampshire politics in ski area spat
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — As a former ski resort executive, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu knows a thing or two about navigating slippery slopes. But a recent controversy at a county-owned ski resort has raised questions about his grip on the Republican Party ahead of the November election.
Sununu, who is seeking a fourth term, recently embroiled herself in a power struggle over the Gunstock Mountain resort, siding with staff who resigned en masse last month and were forced to take a two-week shutdown. In a fight against anti-government activists who want to privatize the ski resort, Sununu also called for the removal of three Republican lawmakers with an oversight role for the ski resort this fall.
“Until they are removed from office and replaced by good people who recognize that Gunstock is a wonderful asset, the county will continue to suffer,” he wrote in an open letter to local residents.
Many saw Sununu’s intervention as a rebuke of the Free State program, a 20-year-old political experiment to facilitate the mass migration of 20,000 liberals to New Hampshire. Fewer than 6,500 have arrived so far, but they’ve made progress in places from school boards to legislatures. What this means for Sununu, the GOP and the state as a whole is uncertain. But so-called free nations are clearly shaking things up.
Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, said: “In my view, the governor has barely stuck with his party in the House of Commons, and some of the crazy things they’re trying to pull are hurting his position in the state. reputation.”
In 2003, Fowler dismissed the project as a gimmick, saying even 20,000 people were unlikely to have a significant impact. But she also did not foresee Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016 or the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think both contribute to the fact that Free State people are now negatively influencing politics in the state and their behavior has become an electoral issue,” she said.
The Free State Project, conceived in 2001 by a Yale graduate student, chose New Hampshire two years later — a state with low taxes, easy access to politics and a “life and death” motto. By 2016, 20,000 people had pledged to pack within five years. That hasn’t happened yet, and the group’s former president now says the commitment model has been put on hold.
But it doesn’t cost a lot of numbers to get results.
About 45 Free Staters have been elected to the legislature since 2008; there are now over 20 servings. While that’s only a fraction of the 424-member legislature, it’s enough to influence policy given the Republicans’ narrow majority in the House.
The group counts the House majority leader as one of its own, and members often work with dozens of other lawmakers who make up the broader “Liberty Caucus” to make sure it’s working on issues related to school choice, vaccines and limiting governors’ powers in an emergency. Victory over the relevant legislation.
A stronghold in the Free State is Belknap County, home to the Gunstock ski area. After months of tension, top management abruptly resigned last month, then returned after two commissioners were ousted. Sununu’s letter targets committee members and the three Republican lawmakers who appointed them, saying they have lost the public’s trust.
The governor later described their handling of the ski resort as “just the latest episode of their madness,” noting that one of the three — Rep. Michael Sylvia — supported keeping New Hampshire out of the United States. But Sununu said he did not think they were representatives of the Free State movement or the Republican Party.
“I don’t have any problems with the Free State,” he said. “These are not free states.”
Sununu also rejected the idea that the rise of the Free State movement poses a long-term problem for his political career or his party, saying voters will reject the most extreme candidates.
“Voters are very smart,” he said. “When they see this extremism, they tend to act on both the Republican and Democratic sides.”
Political adviser Scott Spradlin said Sununu’s involvement in the gun-stock dispute could herald a turning point.
“I think there’s a fine line between Republicans and free state people. There’s a battle line now,” he said. “The butt of the gun is likely to be a high watermark, putting a warning light around the Free State movement for New Hampshire voters who will now associate their identities with this controversy.”
Spradlin said either side could make the other’s life politically miserable. But Sununu has credibility and popularity around him.
“In the long run, I’ll put my money in the right institutions, on the Sununu side of the aisle, because his politics appeal to a wider audience,” Spradlin said.
Sununu faces five largely unknown opponents in the Sept. 13 primary, with polls showing him seeking re-election with a wide lead over Democratic candidate state Sen. Tom Sherman rather than running for the U.S. Senate, which surprised political observers. Even Rep. Norm Silber, one of the lawmakers Sununu wants to be removed, wants Sununu to be re-elected and will vote for him again if he is the nominee. But he believes it is Sununu who strayed from the Republican Party.
“As a Republican with a long history of supporting the Republican family, I’m sure he’s going to be a true Republican,” Silber said. “It seems to me that he’s catering to non-Republicans in order to build a support base.”
Silber says he’s not a free state congressman, but Democrats call him a free state congressman hoping to flip the seat in November by painting all Republicans with the free state paintbrush. The ski resort controversy prompted the formation of a political action committee to support the “extremist free state agenda” of candidates from both sides to defeat Belknap County.
“People on the left, or people who don’t like fiscally conservative Republicans, tend to call people they don’t like free state people,” he said.
Carla Greck, former president of the Free State Project, agreed.
“When there’s a positive side, people praise it, but on the other hand, whenever it’s convenient, we’re also demons,” she said. “We’re at a stage where we’re successful enough that we’re just being used as pawns between the two parties. And we’re just doing our own thing.”
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