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Free State Project Republican Runs 'Protest Campaign' for N.H. Senate from Florida

  • Tim Condon, right, celebrates the selection of New Hampshire as the winner of a vote to bring 20,000 liberty-minded Americans to a "free state" in October 2003. He was joined by, from left, Elizabeth McKinstry, Matt Cheselka and Jason Sorens. Condon, a lawyer in Tampa, Fla., who is registered to vote in Grafton, N.H., is running for a state Senate seat in New Hampshire.  (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

    Tim Condon, right, celebrates the selection of New Hampshire as the winner of a vote to bring 20,000 liberty-minded Americans to a "free state" in October 2003. He was joined by, from left, Elizabeth McKinstry, Matt Cheselka and Jason Sorens. Condon, a lawyer in Tampa, Fla., who is registered to vote in Grafton, N.H., is running for a state Senate seat in New Hampshire. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • Tim Condon, right, celebrates the selection of New Hampshire as the winner of a vote to bring 20,000 liberty-minded Americans to a "free state" in October 2003. He was joined by, from left, Elizabeth McKinstry, Matt Cheselka and Jason Sorens. Condon, a lawyer in Tampa, Fla., who is registered to vote in Grafton, N.H., is running for a state Senate seat in New Hampshire.  (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Sen. Jeanie Forrester

Sen. Jeanie Forrester

Grafton — The Free State Project activist challenging state Sen. Jeanie Forrester in New Hampshire’s Sept. 9 Republican primary is running what he calls a “protest campaign” from his home in Florida.

Although Tim Condon, R-Grafton, wants Forrester to rethink her voting record, by no means does he intend to replace her.

“If I were elected, first of all, the first thing I would do is demand a recount,” Condon said over the phone on Wednesday. “The second thing I would do is go to my wife and say, ‘I have a problem, and so does my current living situation.’ ”

Condon moved to Grafton in 2004 at the behest of the Free State Project, a libertarian movement which promotes smaller government in New Hampshire, but says that he spends most of his time in Tampa, Fla., where his wife lives and where he maintains a law practice.

When Condon visits the Granite State, he stays at a sprawling compound at 12 Liberty Lane in Grafton, home and staging ground to an indeterminate number of Free Staters. Robert Hull, another member of the movement, owns the property and is also running for the House as a Republican.

Were Condon to win the Senate District 2 seat, he says he would have to spend more time in New Hampshire, though he doubts that will happen.

“In all honesty, my primary campaign against Jeanie Forrester is quixotic at best,” he writes on his campaign site.

Forrester, a Meredith Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee and is seeking her third term, earned the enmity of the Free State Project when she voted this spring for a Medicaid expansion plan that would use federal funding to provide health insurance for about 50,000 low-income New Hampshire residents.

“If she doesn’t change, then two years from now there may be a more serious campaign and a much more energetic candidate,” Condon said on Wednesday.

Condon also takes issue with Forrester’s opposition to legalizing marijuana, and advocates using the revenue from legal marijuana to abolish the corporate profits tax, which he says makes New Hampshire “business-unfriendly.”

Yet if Condon’s goal has been to strike fear into his primary opponent, Forrester might better be described as bemused.

The incumbent senator has seen Condon in person only once, at a spaghetti dinner for the Pemi-Baker Valley Republican Committee, where the candidates exchanged brief remarks.

Forrester drove through Grafton recently and noticed that Condon didn’t have campaign signs up in his hometown.

“I don’t know what he’s doing,” she said over the phone on Monday.

The Senate district includes part of the Lakes Region and much of Grafton County, including the Upper Valley towns of Haverhill, Piermont, Orford, Dorchester, Orange and Grafton.

For his part, Condon is open about his activities and whereabouts. Right now, he’s in Tampa, and doesn’t plan to come up to New Hampshire until Sept. 8, the day before the primary.

Condon, 65, is a consumer protection lawyer, a profession that often requires him to litigate against debt collections agencies on the behalf of debtors. He took what he describes as a 180-degree turn to enter the field, given that in his previous career he was a collections lawyer.

“Instead of chasing deadbeats and suing them and squeezing money out of them, I turned to protecting consumers,” he said.

Before that, Condon said, he grew up in Coral Gables, Fla., graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Florida, and served with the Marines in Vietnam. At various times he returned to school, first for a law degree, and then for a degree in accounting from the University of South Florida in Tampa, according to his website.

A long-time libertarian, Condon moved from Florida to New Hampshire for the Free State Project and founded the now defunct New Hampshire Legal Rights Foundation with Bill O’Brien, a Mont Vernon, N.H., Republican who later became House speaker.

Condon and O’Brien were attorneys in a lawsuit against Grafton County, brought by Hull, that delayed the construction of a new jail.

Nowadays, Condon no longer practices in New Hampshire and maintains significant ties to Florida. Between 2007 and 2013, he paid property taxes on a house in Tampa and each time claimed a homestead exemption, which under Florida law allows property owners to reduce the assessed value of their “permanent” residence by between $25,000 and $50,000. He has also applied this year for a homestead exemption for a new house in Tampa.

Walt Havenstein, the Republican candidate for governor in New Hampshire, was recently embroiled in controversy after the state of Maryland billed him for $9,000 in back taxes that he had deducted in homestead exemptions. The Maryland Department of Assessment and Taxation claimed that for his gubernatorial campaign, he signed a statement saying that during the time he took the exemptions, he had been living in New Hampshire, and asked for the money back.

Condon said on Friday that his homestead exemption had been in place since 1991, when he first acquired the house, and so when he moved to New Hampshire in 2004, it continued to apply itself automatically.

On his federal tax return, filed together with his wife, Condon writes his Tampa address, though if it weren’t a joint return, he’d put in 12 Liberty Lane in Grafton , he said.

New Hampshire law requires that a candidate for state senator be at least 30 years old, a registered voter and domiciled in New Hampshire for at least 7 years.

New Hampshire law defines domicile as “that one place where a person, more than any other place, has established a physical presence and manifests an intent to maintain a single continuous presence for domestic, social, and civil purposes relevant to participating in democratic self-government,” according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Condon argues that the enormous amount of time and money he has spent traveling back and forth from New Hampshire alone establishes his “intent to maintain a single continuous presence.”

In practice, the requirements for registration and thus for running for office are minimal, said George Curran, the head supervisor of Grafton’s voter checklist.

“Day one, you qualify. It’s almost barrier-free,” he said in a telephone interview on Thursday.

All one needs to prove domicile is an official document — a bank statement, a bill — sent to an address in town, Curran said.

Forrester on Monday complained that there were problems with the state’s laws relating to domicile and residency, but said that if the secretary of state had approved Condon’s candidacy, she didn’t want to insert herself in the matter.

Assistant Secretary of State David Scanlan said on Wednesday that unless someone addresses a concern directly to his office, he doesn’t question the certification that the town provides.

If that happens, then Scanlan passes the investigation to Assistant Attorney General Stephen LaBonte .

Though it’s unclear if it relates to Condon or his housemates, the Attorney General’s Office began an inquiry in early 2013 after a report of potential voter fraud in Grafton.

Curran on Wednesday said that he knew the person who had called in the complaint, and said it alleged that a number of people were registered at 12 Liberty Lane who didn’t live there.

On Friday, LaBonte declined to comment on the investigation, which is still ongoing.

As of August 27, there were 10 registered voters at 12 Liberty Lane , according to the Grafton checklist.

When told how many were registered, Curran said he wasn’t surprised. Last he could remember, he knew of as many as eight actually in residence there.

But the actual number living there depends on whom one asks.

As Bonnie Haubrich, the Grafton town clerk, went through the checklist on Wednesday to tally the number of voters listed to the property, she kept repeating the same phrase.

“I don’t know that person,” she said again and again.

Finally, Haubrich came up with 10 names, and another 10 at 31 Hoyt Road, also owned by Hull. Those numbers weren’t necessarily reflective of reality either, she said, because the checklist hadn’t been purged of inactive voters for three years.

Hull and Condon are both regular voters, Haubrich mentioned, though Condon “seldom” votes in person, she said; usually, it’s via absentee ballot.

The house on Hoyt Road, a ramshackle affair surrounded by chickens poking through an overgrown yard, is part of what Curran calls an “underground railroad” of Free State visitors to the town. People come and go from Hull’s properties, Curran said, so it’s hard to tell how many are living there at any given time.

Holly Alexander, who lives with four family members at the Hoyt Road home, said that her parents had drifted away from the libertarian movement, but that there was one Free Stater left who was staying in a trailer next to the house.

Outside the mobile home, sitting near a sparkling BMW with a license plate that read “LESGOV,” John Bender explained that two Free Staters who once lived on the property had since moved to Texas, and another had bought and was residing in a local church.

The property on Liberty Lane has a similar feel to Hoyt Road, with construction vehicles strewn throughout a bare dirt yard roamed by a flock of 36 geese and more than 100 chickens, but the Free Staters are less open about who lives there.

Only Condon would explicitly say how many people called Liberty Lane their primary residence: There were nine, including himself, he said.

Some at the house itself were more vague.

“People rotate in and out,” resident Rich Angell told a reporter who visited the home on Wednesday.

As for full-time residents, there are “several others — I don’t know if I’m at liberty to say,” Angell said.

People often stay at the compound while they build houses in the area, he added.

The lack of zoning laws and the abundance of available land in the town were part of what made it so attractive to the Free State Project in the first place, Condon said.

In Grafton, “if I want to build a teepee out of Styrofoam, I can do so,” he said on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the political goals of the Free State Project have clashed with the established order in town.

Condon said that the movement’s objective in settling there had been to develop a “free town,” whose government was based on libertarian principles, but in Curran’s view, the Free Staters were trying to “invade and take over, to put it bluntly,” the official said.

At a recent Town Meeting, a Free State advocate pushed for a resolution that Grafton secede from the United Nations, arguing that the U.N. could potentially obtain the authority to impose its own taxes or even invade the town, Curran said.

“It’s all part of the game of wasting time,” he said.

B ut Condon countered that the activists truly believed in what they said, and that town officials, by their nature, seek power and control over others.

“To (Grafton officials), it looks like orneriness and obfuscation, but it’s not,” he said. “These people believe, and I’m one of them. I’m not as confrontational because I’m older.”

Whoever wins the GOP primary for the Senate seat will run against Carolyn Mello, a Democrat from Holderness, in the general election.

Forrester said that other than seeing him at the Pemi-Baker event, she hasn’t spoken to Condon since June, when he telephoned to tell her of his primary challenge.

“He did tell me that if I needed to get ahold of him, I could reach him in Florida,” Forrester said.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

Correction

Rich Angell is a resident of 12 Liberty Lane in Grafton. His first name was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.