RUSKIN — Just as he did when he flew a gyrocopter into the international spotlight and became a felon, Doug Hughes has a lofty goal.
And another plan.
Run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives against one of the best-known Democratic incumbents in the country. Beat her by running on the same anti-corruption message he tried to deliver to Congress by landing a gyrocopter on the lawn of the Capitol. Form a bipartisan caucus to force a vote on campaign finance reform.
"I'm not saying it's likely. I'm certainly not saying it's certain. But don't tell me that it's impossible," the 62-year-old retired postal worker said Thursday as he sat in the living room of the home he shares with his wife and daughter. An artificial Christmas tree stood slightly askew in the corner. The family's caramel-colored Lhasa apso, Rosie, lay at his bare feet.
Hughes, who pleaded guilty last month to operating a gyrocopter without a license, intended to fly in and deliver 535 letters, one for each member of Congress. He was arrested on the spot.
Now, he is making headlines again by saying he wants to run for the 23rd Congressional District seat in South Florida held by U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
It's not the way he wanted the news to come to light. He wanted to travel to the district, which stretches from Weston to Miami, and make the announcement directly to the constituents he hopes to represent. To do that, he needs permission from a judge to leave Hillsborough County before his sentencing April 13. His plans to run for the South Florida seat, first reported by the Associated Press, were included in a court filing this week.
It's possible he'll be behind bars on Election Day. He faces up to three years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000. Prosecutors have asked for no more than 10 months in prison. Hughes' lawyers will argue that he should get probation.
Ironically, Hughes, because he's a felon, can no longer vote, but he can run for office. The U.S. Constitution says that a candidate must be at least 25, a naturalized citizen and resident of the state in which the candidate is running for at least seven years. If he doesn't go to jail, he plans to move to the district.
So why Wasserman Schultz?
Hughes calls her "the poster child for establishment politics on the Democratic side."
Exhibit A, he said: the small number of Democratic debates. Hughes contends that's by design to help Hillary Clinton in the three-way primary with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.
"Either the debate schedule was deliberately fixed to reduce Hillary Clinton's exposure or Debbie Wasserman Schultz is the dumbest DNC chairperson to ever come along, and no one's called her stupid that I've heard," he said. "She wants to select who the candidates will be that the Democrats have the opportunity to vote on.''
He also cited a Politico report this year that Wasserman Schultz offered a deal to reverse her opposition to medical marijuana to silence Tampa lawyer John Morgan's criticisms. She denied the claims.
Wasserman Schultz could not be reached for comment Thursday. Members of her staff did not respond to emails.
Hughes said his quest is not absolutely quixotic. He draws inspiration from last year's stunning defeat of then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who lost in the Republican primary to a virtual unknown tea party candidate named David Brat. Part of what helped Brat, who raised a fraction of the amount Cantor spent on the campaign, was a low turnout, which gives underdog candidates more leverage.
"When Cantor went down, he was attacked by the far right for being a sold-out Republican," Hughes said. "The dynamic is exactly the same with what I'm doing, but I'm using progressives."
Once elected, he would work to form a bipartisan "reform caucus" with about two dozen members to focus on campaign finance reform. Those caucus members could then work to recruit challengers to establishment candidates for the 2018 cycle. Success would mean garnering a majority in the House that could walk out and deny the chamber a quorum unless a reform bill is brought up for a vote.
"The people will assert power through the elections because we'll give them the choice they've never had before," Hughes said.
His 12-year-old daughter, Kathy, seemed to be taking the idea of moving to South Florida in stride. It would be a bummer to leave her friends, she said, but she could deal with it.
"As long as it's changing America," she said.
Times staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.