The new New Hampshire

Once home to log runs and libertarians, the state is embracing high tech and even taxes.

Perhaps the surest sign that Robert Frost was a New Hampshirite was that he took the road less traveled.

Ever since the first days of its founding - when New Hampshire was known as a renegade British colony of smugglers and outlaws - it has been unapologetically independent.

To those who live here among ragged peaks and bending birches, "Live Free or Die" has been more a statement of purpose than a motto. Residents still pay no income tax, and adults don't have to wear seat belts.

But today, as citizens of the Granite State vote in the first primary of America's 2000 presidential election, a new portrait of New Hampshire is emerging. Millions of newcomers from Massachusetts and across the country - seeking lower taxes and jobs in the state's booming high-tech industry - are changing the state's political calculus.

While many of the migrants adopt New Hampshire's flinty resistance to big government, their sheer numbers are straining a state system designed to interfere in citizens' lives as little as possible. The result, say political experts, is a moderating and mainstreaming of New Hampshire as residents become increasingly willing to listen to candidates who think beyond tax cuts and small government.

"It points to a new synthesis of politics that acknowledges a role for the federal government but is reformist at the same time," says Constantine Spiliotis, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. "The larger impact is that New Hampshire is going to grow closer to America."

The signs of change here are already becoming apparent.

*Long considered one of the most Republican states, New Hampshire in 1998 elected Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen to a second term and, for the first time since 1911, returned a majority-Democrat state Senate.

*This year, for the first time ever, the number of state voters registered as Independent or unaffiliated topped the number of registered Republicans.

*State legislators this year enacted a statewide property-tax system and are discussing an income tax.

"At least part of the change is demographically driven," says Clark Hubbard, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. "It essentially brings in voters who weren't a part of the political culture."

Indeed, the face of New Hampshire has changed dramatically during the past two decades. The exodus of a mass of residents during the recession of the late 1980s, followed by the explosion of the population during the 1990s, means that some 60 percent of people in state are not natives - a radical departure from the past, when New Hampshirites could trace their families back to the days of log runs and shoe mills.

Moreover, these newcomers have recast the economy of New Hampshire. Gone are the threadbare textile workers and frugal farmers that defined the state since the Industrial Revolution. In their place have risen more-liberal Massachusetts migrants and dotcom entrepreneurs who have more money to tax and no ties to New Hampshire's tradition of conservatism.

According to one study, the Granite State now has more workers in high tech, per capita, than any other state.

"Part of it is people leaving Massachusetts for lower taxes, but [also] a lot of people move here from Silicon Valley and Tyson's Corner in Virginia," says Mr. Spiliotis. "It's really a different demographic - much more mobile.... To some degree, the people who move in adopt the ideals of the state, but it's kind of a kinder, gentler 'Live Free or Die.' "

For his part, newcomer Randy Snyder can do without the "kinder, gentler." He's moved 13 times in the past 28 years - living most recently in "near socialist" Minnesota - but when it comes to politics, he's as old New Hampshire as it gets.

"We absolutely should not have an income tax," says the Indiana native, who moved here two years ago. "Once you start down that path, it is so slippery and so steep, you basically are giving them license to be like the federal government."

So in today's primary, Mr. Snyder - who favors a flat tax - must be for Steve Forbes, right?

Nope. He's a John McCain man. Says Snyder: He "exemplifies more leadership qualities than any of the other candidates."

His reason for supporting the Arizona senator, pollsters say, hints at New Hampshire's changing priorities.

"No one wants lousy education or health care, but this election's been about personality," says Dick Bennett of American Research Group in Manchester, N.H. "Because people don't have to worry about the economy, they can dissect the candidate to see what kind of president he would be."

Yet as newcomers have flooded into New Hampshire, the state's solid opposition to taxes has been shaken not only by the recent prosperity, but also by a growing school crisis. New Hampshire ranks 49th in funding higher education, and many rural schools at all levels - paid for largely with local property taxes - have fallen behind schools in wealthier areas.

The discrepancy has spawned a US Supreme Court case and an ongoing debate about the need for a statewide income tax. "The school-funding crisis did a lot to overturn long-held beliefs here," says Snyder. "It dramatically affected the way people inside the state think about the state."

It has certainly changed Mal Cameron's views. Ten years ago, if he had been asked whether he wanted an income tax, the 50-year Granite State resident and son of a staunch Republican would have answered, "Income tax? What do we need that for? This is New Hampshire."

Today, Mr. Cameron says an income tax "is the fairest tax."

That's not the only change he's seen in himself and his state. Since his family first moved to Sandown, N.H., from Boston in 1951, the crank phones that "you didn't want to go anywhere near during a lightning storm" have become a dim memory, and the shoe factory he worked at in Derry, N.H., has been replaced by retail stores.

Somewhere around 1980, he also became a registered Independent. "I just found I wasn't always liking everyone who was on the 'R' side," he says, lingering in his office at the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium in Concord, N.H.

He adds that he, like Snyder, will vote for Senator McCain because McCain "likes to speak his mind."

The attraction to maverick candidates has become more common throughout the state, analysts say, as the national Republican Party has staked out ground on the religious right.

"The main thing that has happened in New Hampshire is the slow death of moderate Republicanism," says Dayton Duncan, a writer and filmmaker in New Hampshire and a former Democratic activist. "Conservatism [here] - which is deep-seated - doesn't come from religion but is a libertarian tradition."

Roy Stewart, for one, would like to see it return to its libertarian foundations.

To him, Republicans in New Hampshire must stand on one thing - a promise to keep taxes low. It was that way when he was born. It was that way when his father ran a dairy farm in Bedford. And it was that way when his grandfather was an overseer at the Amoskeag Mills along the Merrimack River in Manchester.

"They had to eke out a living," he says. "They knew the value of a buck."

Today, his job as legislative director of the Granite State Taxpayers Association is to teach lawmakers the value of a buck, and as he ladles a spoon of clam chowder at a Concord restaurant, he says he's voting for Mr. Forbes today.

But these days, even in New Hampshire, he's finding fewer and fewer allies.

"The whole population has changed," he says. "They're not the conservative Republicans that were here."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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