Awaiting his sentence for landing on Capitol lawn, gyrocopter pilot Doug Hughes still seeks campaign finance reform

Published April 15 2016
Updated April 15 2016

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The protesters gathered under a gray sky in front of Union Station. They wore ball caps and skullcaps and stocking caps and yarmulkes and carried signs that said OVERTURN CITIZENS UNITED and Democracy, not DOLLACRACY and Stop Legalized Bribery. One hundred or so had marched here from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, 140 miles through wind and cold and rain. A few hundred more had just finished learning how to be arrested peacefully.

"That house over there, Congress, they don't give a damn what you think," shouted the man on the stage, Cenk Uygur. "That beautiful house over there has been corrupted. But we're here today to take it back!"

The crowd, which had grown to about 2,000, roared with enough earnest sincerity to make a skeptic verklempt.

The plan for this massive weeks-long experiment in civil disobedience to protest big money's influence in politics — called Democracy Spring — was launched four years before. But the spark that lit the keg, many here agreed, was a lowly mail carrier from the Tampa Bay area who did something so audacious that he arrested the news cycle, and for a moment, tilted the national conversation toward a political issue few seem to understand or care about: campaign finance reform.

Last April, a soft-spoken 62-year-old Ruskin man named Doug Hughes piloted his one-man flying machine through protected airspace and landed on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol building. His intention was to deliver a letter to each member of Congress demanding that they stop being influenced by lobbyists and corporations looking to buy votes.

The stunt cost him his job. He forfeited his gyrocopter to the government, was placed on house arrest and has been living on Social Security since. He's facing as many as 10 months in prison when he's sentenced on Thursday, which would mean time away from his wife and adolescent daughter, who watched him get arrested on CNN.

And he has zero regrets.

"I will wear my felony as a badge of honor for the rest of my life," he said at home. "I won't do it again, but I don't regret it. . . . I know I broke the rules, but I did it to restore true democracy to the United States."

The judge wouldn't allow him to attend the protests last week, but his name was a rallying cry.

"We totally honor him," said Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the activist group Code Pink. "I think it's fair to say that this is his baby.

"He showed what one person can do, one guy saying, 'I've had enough.' That's very inspiring to a lot of people. I think he pushed a lot of people off the edge and off the couch and out from behind their computers and into the streets."

Ask Hughes to assess his role in the reform movement and he's humble. It's not about him, he says, but about bringing people together to demand change.

"I fit into this as a recognized spokesperson," he said. "What I've got is street cred. I put my a-- on the line."

• • •

For the past year he has been stuck mostly in his tidy, modest home on Pleasant View Avenue in Ruskin, following orders to check in routinely with federal court monitors. The parade of television news crews tapered off. It was a year highlighted by intense periods of chaos mixed with long stretches of boredom, he said.

He's about to lose his right to vote because he pleaded guilty to a felony. He spent so much maintaining the gyrocopter and buying a trailer that his home was at risk of foreclosure. He emptied his retirement to save the house. He didn't qualify for unemployment and had to go on food stamps for two months. Now, Social Security helps them get by on a tight budget.

But his daughter is proud of him. And his wife, who can't work because of an injury, has taken an active interest in his image and message, and says they're closer now than ever.

Part of what helps him pass the time is corresponding with fans and people in the movement. He has received emails from people across the country who celebrated his "freedom flight," as he calls it.

"Those who condemn your methodology don't or won't try to understand how hard it is to get real reform on the issue," Anna Easton wrote from Tallahassee. "Your message is so important to all Americans."

"I see they didn't shoot you down!" Daniel Blanke wrote from California, Mo. "Congratulations on getting people's attention on the cause. You really have a pair and I admire you."

Hughes, who gave a TEDx talk about his flight last year, has become something of a folk hero among the reformers. One man even wrote and recorded a folk song called The Ballad of Doug Hughes.

"Who else is willing to take that kind of a risk to wake people up?" asked Louis Leo IV, a lawyer from South Florida who was protesting with a group called March Against Corruption. "It's sad that that's what it takes to get the media's attention. It should be easier to get control of the airwaves."

• • •

That — getting noticed — is exceedingly hard, which is why Hughes did what he did, he said. The slender, pedantic man with thinning gray hair and hearing aids said he realized he could write a thousand letters to Congress, but the corruption was too deep. Nobody was listening. He has no criminal record and rarely curses. He even tucks his shirttail into his slacks. But he said he needed a very dramatic public act of civil disobedience to get any attention on his pet topic.

Two and a half years before his flight, it came to him. He would deliver his letters by air, like a mix of Paul Revere and P.T. Barnum, knowing full well he could get killed. That's when he started learning to fly a gyrocopter at an airfield in rural Wauchula. He told select friends of his plan, but word got out. The Secret Service questioned him at home, but when he never heard anything else, he put the plan in place.

"I have thought about walking away from this whole thing because it's crazy," he said back then. "But I have also thought about being 80 years old and watching the collapse of this country and thinking that I had an idea once that might have arrested the fall and I didn't do it."

But did it have any measurable impact on discourse?

"It excited people," said George Ripley, director of Americans for Social Justice. "If one person could make a difference, he most certainly did."

Democracy Spring's civil disobedience included a march through D.C. that stalled traffic for blocks in each direction and saw 700 people arrested for refusing to move from the steps of the U.S. Capitol in the first three days. It wasn't enough to garner much mainstream news coverage. The Washington Post, for example, ran a seven-paragraph news brief inside its Metro section. The next day's protest, where about 150 "elders" were arrested for refusing to leave the Capitol, drew almost no coverage from the mainstream media.

"Getting news coverage for anything is hard," said Derek Cressman, author of When Money Talks: The High Price of 'Free' Speech and the Selling of Democracy.

He should know. He has been trying to bring attention to campaign finance reform for more than 20 years and has seen protests and marches that garnered no media coverage.

The coverage of Hughes' flight, on the other hand, was front-page news in the Post. And nearly every national television news and radio outlet dedicated coverage to the stunt, from Good Morning America to CNN to National Public Radio.

"Doug was right on the root there," said Ripley, 67, who lives in Washington. "If it bleeds, it leads. He knew how to get attention."

"Anybody paying attention to the news realized that he stuck his neck out," said Anne Lusby-Denham, 68, of Roanoke, Va., who was among the 400 arrested last Monday.

Cressman said Hughes raised the bar for protest by risking his life.

"We've seen a lot of tactics that have been used and reused since the '60s that are novel . . . but being able to take a risk like that shows a deep commitment," he said. "I think what he did has caused people to think creatively about protesting."

On the other hand, it has caused some in the government to think creatively about how to stop it.

"I want the men and women who are out there on the front line that have their hands on those triggers to know we have got their back," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said during a House Oversight Committee hearing on air space security after Hughes' flight. "We don't know if the person has mental capacity. I am going to assume they do. But you cannot come into the capital region. You are not going to go on that Lincoln Memorial. You are not coming to the White House. You are not coming into the U.S. Capitol unimpeded. We are going to take you down."

A subsequent Senate Homeland Security Committee report said the Secret Service and Capitol Police didn't investigate Hughes enough. The agencies responsible for policing restricted airspace had communication breakdowns. The flight also pointed to holes in technology. The FAA said Hughes' aircraft appeared on radar to be bird or balloon. Law enforcement authorities have been studying ways to make sure the flight is not repeated.

• • •

The hundreds of protesters arrested at the Capitol building last week — carrying signs that said Sweep Big Money Out Of Politics and I'm Doing This For My Grandchildren — were treated gently by Capitol police, who carted them away for booking in air-conditioned buses.

But few inside the building even noticed.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the second ranking Republican in the Senate, said he was unaware of the demonstration happening right outside his office.

"I missed it," he said, as other reporters piped in with other questions about the internal workings of the Senate.

Sen. John McCain, a longtime advocate for stricter campaign finance laws, said it would take a scandal to change things.

"Throughout history, going back to Teddy Roosevelt, there's been scandal, reform, scandal, reform," he said. "It's the Citizens United decision. It will probably take some outside money like China. It will take a scandal. I think that when history is written the U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United will rank as one of the worst."

What does it say that there were hundreds of people outside protesting and no one inside knew it was going on?

"Most of these people (politicians) have their mind made up," McCain said. "It's very disappointing."

Hughes is happy that the movement seems to be growing, and that people are speaking up about gerrymandering and publicly funded elections and voter suppression, even if they don't have a gyrocopter.

He voted in the primary for Bernie Sanders. He thinks both parties are corrupt, but he's glad two major candidates are refusing to take huge donations. "I'm seeing major discussion on campaign finance reform, finally," he said.

Voters on both sides of the aisle, he said, are rejecting the idea that corporations should be able to buy votes.

People recognize Hughes in public sometimes now. A stranger even paid for his family's meal at Steak 'n' Shake not long ago, saying he just wanted to thank him for what he did.

Hughes says he has readied himself for prison through meditation; if he's sentenced to time, he suspects it will be at a minimum security facility in Florida so his family can visit. He hopes the judge will view his act as a peaceful demonstration by a frustrated patriot who loves his country. If he gets off, he wants to find a role in the movement. Not for himself. For the kids.

"I'm 62," he said. "I don't have a future for myself that I'm working for. Young people, if they have a level playing field, they're going to be able to affect this and work things out."

In Washington, police officers carrying rifles patrolled the Capitol steps as cops below arrested even more protesters, some wearing T-shirts that said Elders Standing For Future Generations. One senior citizen held a sign that said I'm not Dead Yet. I Care Deeply. Another shouted while being arrested: "We don't want to be here! This is what we have to do!"

You could barely hear their bull-horn chants out on the National Mall. Not far from where Hughes landed a year before, children climbed aboard a carousel and rode around and around and around.

Washington bureau chief Alex Leary contributed to this report. Contact Ben Montgomery at 727-893-8650 or [email protected]