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Debra Ricketts, national treasurer of the Free State Project, and her husband, Torry, are Las Vegans who don't plan to stay.
Photo by CHRISTINE WETZEL

Thursday, September 11, 2003
Copyright © Las Vegas Mercury

Freedom, ho!

Libertarians prepare to haul ass for a guv'ment-free clime

By Larry Wills

Like the Mormons of the 19th century pushing their carts along the Platte River, as many as 100 disgruntled Nevadans soon may be driving their U-Hauls out of town, singing "I'll Fly Away."

They are among 5,000 Libertarians nationwide who are searching for the state with the most freedom and the least government. Just where that'll be--New Hampshire, Montana, Wyoming and Alaska are in the running--depends on the outcome of the members' vote Oct. 1

"It's quite thrilling to be part of this," says Debra Ricketts, national treasurer of the Free State Project. "This is unusual."

She and her husband, Torry, are methodically making preparations to move from Las Vegas. "There definitely are some economic considerations," she says. "We are even asking people to pay off their debts and get their financial houses in order. There's a lot of talk about career changes."

Debra and Torry aren't going to rush their move. They'll wait until their teenage children graduate from high school. "We're looking at a seven-year time frame." Others could move as early as this year.

She says the number of Nevadans joining the Free State Project was boosted by the record tax increases approved this past legislative session. "We have more and more conservatives who can't justify supporting this," she says. "We see a lot of those people coming in."

The top-ranked states have small populations with lots of unofficial Libertarians, she says, and with the influx of immigrants, the anti-government sentiment will only get stronger. "Population is an important factor," says Ricketts. "Most states considered already have an atmosphere of live and let live. Montana is wonderful."

But Nevada, the supposed cradle of rugged individualism, is not. The population is too large and the Libertarian Party is in shambles, which is also spurring the exodus.

Party candidates do miserably in Nevada elections. With 5,000 members statewide, fewer than 2 percent of voters choose Libertarian candidates. Even in Nye County, a hotbed of free-thinkers, the Libertarian turnout was 2.15 percent in the last election. Brendan Trainor, the party candidate for the 2nd Congressional District, drew 1.68 percent of the vote in his race against Republican Jim Gibbons.

In Elko, another supposed hotbed, the Libertarian Party has ceased to exist. "The party disbanded up here due to poor leadership," resident Lana Noland says. "But individually, people have signed up for the Free State Project."

The poor performance of the national party forced Elizabeth McKinstry, vice president of the Free State Project in Detroit, to call the exodus an indictment. "We believe the Libertarian Party has done a lousy job of educating the public," she says. "We're trying to get the message out that liberty isn't scary. It's good for everyone."

James Dan, unsuccessful Nevada Assembly candidate in the last two elections, has given up on the party and understands the desire to move elsewhere. "After 12 years, I reluctantly came to the conclusion that it's a lost cause," Dan says. "They don't have the competence needed to run a political organization. The party attracts people who are anarchists at heart. They cannot follow orders or work as a team." For example, backing the legalization of drugs attracts users, who, Dan says, are not reliable party workers. "We need to believe in the principles the Libertarian Party espouses," he says. "It's sad. The party has a lot of good ideas." Dan's now looking at the Free State Project. "My wife and I sent in the paperwork," he says.

But the great Libertarian march hasn't deterred Joe Silvestri, Clark County Libertarian Party chairman, from trying to rebuild the organization. He concedes that things were a mess when he first joined the party. "Two and a half years ago, there was a lot of infighting," says Silvestri. "Now we're slowly working at rebuilding the party membership."

And he believes many Nevadans will vote for the party once the word gets out. "There are a lot of people who are philosophically Libertarian but are not prepared to join the party," he says. "Most Nevadans have a Libertarian streak even when they don't know what it is."

As for Republican and Democratic politics: "It's an elitism: I should have the power to mother you," he says. "Folks have given up on big parties--socialism and socialism light."

Silvestri's epiphany came five years ago, far from Nevada. The Long Island, N.Y., native read the book Why Government Doesn't Work, by Harry Browne, which details the rise of regulation and the decline of freedoms over the past century.

"Everybody has a right to live as they wish," Silvestri insists. He advocates dismantling regulating agencies, privatizing public lands and ending overseas provocations. He wants business to be left alone to compete. He also believes entitlement programs, such as Medicare, should be gradually phased out. Other regulations irritate him, such as the motorcycle helmet law. "I'm a firm believer in wearing a helmet, but I'm against being told to wear one," Silvestri says.

Silvestri, a Clark County schoolteacher, is particularly hard on public education. "Our school system is an utter disaster," he says. "We have illiterate graduates." He believes administrators stifle education. "In public schools there is a loss of innovation and creativity. Teachers teach in fear. I would be content with gradually backing the government off education, keeping elementary schools, but no longer secondary and college education. Let's do it for a generation. They [children] should go to charity schools, church schools and apprentice schools. End compulsory education. If they don't have schools, tell them to get jobs."

Michael Bowers, a UNLV political science professor, believes inflexible thinking may be the Libertarians' undoing. "The true believers are unwilling to compromise," Bowers says. "If you're Democrat or Republican, you have to compromise. Those are big tents. They are willing to compromise to win elections, not just win points."

Bowers also sees big parties stealing third party thunder. "Major parties tend to absorb third party issues," he says. "One reason they haven't done too well is that much of their platform has been taken by major parties."

But the nature of the Libertarian mentality doesn't bode well for the party's future success. "We are the liberty people," Silvestri says. "Getting Libertarians together is like trying to herd cats."

But don't tell that to U-Haul drivers in search of a freer land. You can almost hear the screaming kids dragging their toys while Mom and Dad pile furniture on the truck. Then a hundred engines kick over and it's off to Blue Dome, Idaho, Ten Sleep, Wyo., or Two Dot, Mont.

"It's something whose time has come," Ricketts says.


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