New Hampshire's 'live free' spirit turns less prickly

New Hampshire state representatives are paid $100 a year and, the joke goes, many residents think that's too generous.

Traditionally, nothing brought out the "live free or die" spirit here like government meddling in private property. Some years back, after a set of buildings were declared part of a historic district in Durham, the owner protested various restrictions by painting the buildings purple, orange, and chartreuse.

That old Yankee resistance, however, may be waning. Towns have been passing ordinances regulating everything from commercial signs to light bulbs that emit too much "light pollution."

And most dramatically, this longtime Republican bastion of bare-bones government shocked political observers – and maybe itself – last month by tossing out its two Republican congressmen and giving Democrats control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time since 1874.

The switch to the Democrats, plus the openness to a broader role for government, stems partly from a flood of newcomers from out of state since the 1960s, say experts. A full two-thirds of today's residents are not natives. The newcomers, who tend to be wealthier and more highly educated, have been gradually turning this red state's political landscape blue – and are increasingly bumping up against natives in their push for more muscular local regulation.

The big surprise may be that "refugees" from Massachusetts, New Hampshire's notoriously liberal neighbor to the south, are not responsible for the transformation.

"Those towns in which you had the highest percentage of people moving in from out of state, particularly moving in from states other than Massachusetts, are the towns that vote most Democratically," says Andrew Smith, director of the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire. He excepts the Massachusetts migrants because they are less likely than transplants from outside New England to have high levels of education and white-collar jobs.

"The economy now in New Hampshire is no longer an old manufacturing-type economy. It's service, it's high-tech, it's insurance," Dr. Smith says. "If you're going to come for those kinds of jobs, you have to have a college degree and often more.... Those are the kind of people who are voting most Democratic."

Smith and others cite other reasons, too, for the surprise election results. Democratic candidates had a popular governor behind them, while the Republicans were saddled with the Iraq war and a national party that has tilted toward the South – all factors likely to play out in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary in 2008.

This dramatic shift in the political landscape comes after years of gradual cultural changes in the state. Outsiders coming over the past four decades have helped boost the education level from middle-of-the-pack to No. 8 nationally.

"[New Hampshire] rocketed in the last 25 years from just ordinary to the absolute pinnacle" in terms of median household income, says Peter Francese, director of demographic forecasts for the New England Economic Partnership, who lives in New Hampshire. "And that's all driven by education [and] by the people moving here."

Stratham is one town that turned from reliably "red" to solid "blue," says Smith, noting the correlation here between newcomers, their higher education levels, and a rise in voting Democratic.

John Decker is one of those voters. He moved to Stratham from Massachusetts in 1998, and since then has joined a fight to get local government to take a more active role in putting boundaries on business and development for the benefit of the community's character. His particular pique? Advertising signs that line local roads.

In his alter ego as the "sign bandit," Mr. Decker has plucked, by his own estimates, more than 1,000 commercial signs from roadsides around the region. The ads are technically not allowed on public property, but the police seldom bothered with them. So Decker, a former ad executive and campaigner for Howard Dean in 2004, took it upon himself to remove the "litter."

A judge has yet to rule on Decker's misdemeanor theft charges, but score one for the bandit: Stratham is tightening its sign ordinance.

"I guess I am kind of a microcosm of the changing climate in New Hampshire, because I don't think a [born-and-bred] local in New Hampshire would ever notice those signs," says Decker.

Stratham voters, for their part, in 2002 passed a $5 million bond to put land into conservation. A light-pollution ordinance has gone in, and a proposed day care is having difficulty finding a place to locate because of resistance to more development.

"It was the new people coming in who said, 'Close the barn door [on development] ... and keep Stratham rural, because that's why I moved here,' " says Paul Deschaine, Stratham's town administrator. "People still have the right to develop their property responsibly. That's where the argument comes: What's responsible development?"

A few doors down from Decker lives Doug Scamman, the retiring Republican speaker of New Hampshire's House of Representatives. The respected dairy farmer and self-described "old Yankee" has retired before, only to return out of concern that new legislators were forgetting how to keep a tight budget.

He says many of the newcomers, whom he welcomes, came because of the state's absence of taxes – on both income and sales. But they are more politically independent than longtime residents, Mr. Scamman says, and many "earn a lot of money, and they like to spend a lot of money."

He watched the influx change Stratham. Scamman's cows used to cross Route 108, the town's main thoroughfare, to pasture. Now some 30,000 cars zoom down 108 each day, and Scamman has sold his herd.

"When I was a kid there were 35 dairy farmers. Now there is one. And you can't have all these farms here now," says Scamman. The reason: Land is at a premium. In 1960, only 1,000 people lived in Stratham. Now the town has 7,500 residents.

It's often the natives who still hold the largest plots of old farmland, and many want wide freedom to sell or develop their land.

When residents heard that Wal-Mart might be coming to Stratham, a group banded together and beat back the plans.

Scamman says he didn't particularly want to see a new Wal-Mart, but when the citizens group came to him to sign their petition, he declined.

"I told them I am an old Yankee, and if [the developers] have the property rights, they should have been able to build," he says.

He points to the BMW dealership that sits outside his window. "My wife says, 'I wish it wasn't there.' And I say, 'We could have bought the land, too.' " Besides, when it came time to find a new car, Scamman says with a laugh, "I jumped over the stone wall and bought it."

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