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“It Was Worth Risking My Life, My Freedom”: Campaign Reform Activist on Flying Gyrocopter to Capitol

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Last week U.S. mailman Doug Hughes made national headlines when he flew a tiny personal aircraft known as a gyrocopter on to the lawn of the U.S. Capitol in an act of civil disobedience. Hughes was carrying letters to every member of Congress urging them to address corruption and to pass campaign finance reform. The letter began with a quote from John Kerry’s farewell speech to the Senate: “The unending chase for money I believe threatens to steal our democracy itself.” After landing on the Capitol Mall, Doug Hughes was arrested and could now face up to four years in prison on charges of violating national defense airspace and operating an unregistered aircraft. Despite being under house arrest and forced to wear a GPS monitoring device, Doug Hughes has decided to keep speaking out about the need for campaign finance reform.

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Web ExclusiveApr 16, 2015Read the Letter Gyrocopter Pilot Doug Hughes Attempted to Deliver to Congress
Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show with Doug Hughes, the U.S. mailman who made national headlines last week when he flew a tiny personal aircraft known as the gyrocopter onto the lawn of the U.S. Capitol in an act of civil disobedience. Hughes was carrying letters to every member of Congress urging them to address corruption and to pass campaign finance reform. The letter began with a quote from John Kerry’s farewell speech to the Senate: “The unending chase for money I believe threatens to steal our democracy itself.”

Doug Hughes flew about an hour from Maryland into restricted airspace and onto the Capitol’s West Lawn, stunning authorities and bystanders. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Hughes literally flew below the radar, going undetected, before landing on the Capitol lawn. Before taking off, Hughes had spoken about his plans to the Tampa Bay Times.

DOUG HUGHES: I’m going to violate the no-fly zone nonviolently. I intend for nobody to get hurt. And I’m going to land on the Capitol Mall in front of the Capitol building. I’m going to have 535 letters strapped to the landing gear in boxes, and those letters are going to be addressed to every member of Congress. I don’t believe that the authorities are going to shoot down a 60-year-old mailman in a flying bicycle.

AMY GOODMAN: After landing on the Capitol Mall, Doug Hughes was arrested and could now face up to four years in prison on charges of violating national defense airspace and operating an unregistered aircraft. Despite being under house arrest and forced to wear a GPS monitoring device, Doug Hughes has decided to keep speaking out about the need for campaign finance reform. He joins us now from his home in Ruskin, Florida, under house arrest.

Doug Hughes, welcome to Democracy Now!

DOUG HUGHES: Good morning. Thank you for inviting me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. We’re just going to try to bring up the sound of your microphone, because we can hardly hear you. But can you describe what exactly you did?

DOUG HUGHES: Well, this [inaudible] for quite a while. A key part of my plan was—

AMY GOODMAN: It looks like we just lost Doug Hughes. Now we’re getting him back on. You have to understand, we have a truck at his house, because he is under house arrest inside, as he sits inside in front of his piano. Let’s go to the congressmember, Walter Jones of North Carolina, who took to the House floor and talked about the gyrocopter protest and the need for campaign finance reform.

REP. WALTER JONES JR.: … onto the Capitol lawn to make a point about influence of money in politics. While I don’t condone violating restricted airspace and putting innocent people at risk by flying a gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn, Mr. Hughes does have a point about the pervasive influence of money in politics. I’ve seen it get worse and worse in my 20 years in Congress. The Citizens United decision by the United States Supreme Court in 2010 created super PACs and multimillionaires that buy candidates.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Republican Congressmember Walter Jones speaking on the floor of the House. One day after Doug Hughes landed his gyrocopter on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol, we spoke with Congressmember Alan Grayson about money in politics. Grayson is a Democrat representing Florida’s 9th Congressional District.

REP. ALAN GRAYSON: I’m the only member of the House of Representatives who raised most of his campaign funds in the last election from small contributions of less than $200. Thousands of people came to our website, CongressmanWithGuts.com, and made contributions. I am one—one—out of 435. On the other side of the building, over at the U.S. Senate, there’s only one member of the U.S. Senate who raised most of his campaign from some small contributions. That’s Bernie Sanders, who you heard earlier in this broadcast. That tells you something. In fact, to a large degree, in both parties, because of the absence of campaign finance reform, the place is bought and paid for. And the only question is: Do the members stay bought? That’s what the corporate lobbyists stay up late at night wondering about: Is that member going to stay bought?

Now, I was actually in the courtroom when this disastrous Citizens United decision was decided five years ago. Mitch McConnell was two seats to my left. We were the only public officials who were in the courtroom. Mitch McConnell was the happiest I have ever seen him that day. He was literally chortling when the decision was rendered. And I said on MSNBC that night five years ago that if we do nothing, you can kiss this country goodbye. Well, pucker up, because right now the millionaires and the billionaires and the multinational corporations are calling the shots with whatever they want in TPP, whatever they want in fast track—more generally, whatever they want. They get the bailouts. They get the tax breaks. They get the so-called deregulation. They get what they want here because they get what they pay for.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Congressman Alan Grayson talking about campaign finance reform. Doug Hughes is the mailman from Florida who landed a personal aircraft known as a gyrocopter on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol last week, and we have him back in the feed. I wanted to ask you, Doug, were you surprised that you were able to get as far as you did onto the Capitol Mall?

DOUG HUGHES: Well, my expectation was that my letter would get through, they’d find out who I was, and the decision would be made that it’s less dangerous to let me land, since I had already been vetted by the Secret Service and they knew I wasn’t carrying a bomb. That didn’t work. And it turned out I was able to land safely anyway.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, you did everything possible to warn folks ahead of time that you were doing this protest?

DOUG HUGHES: Yeah. I sent an email, which some people have said was inadequate, but the email gave the reasons why they didn’t need to shoot me down. And I had a website, and on the website I asked people to call the White House to tell them to read the email, what address it went to and who it was from. And the Tampa Bay Times called in to the White House to tell them that I was coming in. So, every effort was made to give the Homeland Security advance warning of my arrival and who I was and that I wasn’t a threat.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you fly under the radar, Doug Hughes, in this kind of flying bicycle contraption, a gyrocopter, and you land on the West Lawn of the Capitol. You could have been blown out of the sky. Was [campaign] finance reform that important to you?

DOUG HUGHES: Yes. I’m a father, I’m a grandfather, and I can see the change over the decades as we slide from a democracy to a plutocracy. Just like Alan Grayson said, the fat cats are calling the shots. They’re getting everything they want. And the voters know it. Across the political spectrum—center, left and right—they know that this Congress isn’t representing the people. And yes, it was worth risking my life, it was worth risking my freedom, to get reform so that Congress works for the people.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re a letter carrier. You’re a postal carrier, a mailman. How many letters were you carrying in your gyrocopter to deliver to Congress?

DOUG HUGHES: I believe the count was 535, but I never actually counted them. I handle a lot of them in the process of printing them, signing them, stamping them. There was a lot of hours that went into getting the letters done.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you planning to hand-deliver them individually to each member of Congress?

DOUG HUGHES: No, no. At no time did I expect that was going to happen. The plan was to get the letters there in such a way that—let me step back. Congress knows what’s going on. I wasn’t telling Congress anything that they’re not aware of. I was telling them something they don’t want the people to be aware of. And I was telling the people that there are solutions in place. They know there’s a problem. I’m telling people something they don’t know: There are solutions that have already been designed; they only have to be implemented. And it’s in our power to implement them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about some of those solutions and what your letter actually said?

DOUG HUGHES: What my letter actually said to the Congress critters was they’ve got to decide whether they’re going to deny that corruption exists, or they’re going to pretend that they’re doing something about it, or they’re going to really roll up their sleeves and be a part of reform. But I’m looking to the local media, particularly the print media, OK, at the local level, to hold the candidates’ feet to the fire and force them to take a stand on real reform and whether or not they’re going to vote for it or whether or not they’re going to try and take a halfway, mealy-mouthed stand on it, which means they’re going to try and preserve the status quo. The idea is, the voters can decide well if they’re informed. The national media can’t and won’t inform the voters about where the candidates stand. But the local media, which has been, you know, very weak and impotent in the political process, can really take the ball, and they can be the moving force in informing the voters.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your own evolution of your thinking. You were formerly in the U.S. Navy, served on the USS Enterprise. Talk about the evolution of your thinking on this issue.

DOUG HUGHES: Well, I wound up hanging out with a friend of mine, Mike Shanahan, and over a bunch of beers in his backyard, we came up with a written action plan, which we weren’t able to take anywhere. That was called The Civilist Papers. But Mike came up with the idea that what we needed to do is take our written plan and send certified copies of it to every member of Congress, and that was the nucleus of the idea. But we observed that it wouldn’t work, because Congress already knows; what we really need to do is get that letter to the public. They need to be aware. And during the time that we were working on this, we discovered the existence of other groups and other very sophisticated plans that had been written by people a lot smarter than me. But we also observed these groups weren’t getting any traction. They had managed to get through to the people who were sympathetic to the idea, but it wasn’t going a lot further than that, nor could they get any attention in the media about what they wanted to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, Hillary Rodham Clinton kicked off her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination with her first formal campaigning in Iowa, and she talked about this issue, as she has for a few days now, campaign finance reform.

HILLARY CLINTON: We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all, even if that takes a constitutional amendment.

AMY GOODMAN: Is that what you’re calling for, Doug Hughes? Does that hearten you?

DOUG HUGHES: Yes, I’m glad to hear the candidates are talking about this. Cenk Ungar [sic], who’s a liberal media figure—

AMY GOODMAN: Cenk Uygur.

DOUG HUGHES: —has been working on an Article V—say again?

AMY GOODMAN: Cenk Uygur.

DOUG HUGHES: He’s been working on an Article V convention, and this does an entire end-around on Congress, so that Congress doesn’t ever even vote on the amendment. It can be done completely through the states through an Article V convention that would be called. The amendment would be designed, then it goes back to the states, and three-quarters of the states have to ratify that constitutional amendment. At that point it becomes law, without the House or the Senate ever voting on it. So the states can put limits on the Congress, OK, and fix this problem so that there’s no backsliding that would ever happen. The constitutional amendment can protect legislation from it being struck down by the courts. So, this whole thing can happen, and it can stay.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Doug Hughes, are you encouraging other like-minded Americans who feel this way about campaign finance reform to come up with other creative ways to get the issue before the American public?

DOUG HUGHES: I’m absolutely sympathetic to other people getting involved with whatever their view on it is. I think we’re going to see a lot of Trojan horse legislation and groups come up that are intended to misdirect people into solutions that have no power. OK. I’ve pretty much signed on to the Anti-Corruption Act. And I will look at other ideas that are out there, but the Anti-Corruption Act, which stands no chance of getting out of committee, as we are right now, was written by a former head of the Federal Election [Commission], FEC. This guy is as far to the conservative end as Cenk [Uygur] is liberal, OK? That’s why I say this thing completely goes across the political spectrum. But what this guy wrote will work, if it’s passed without any amendments. That’s got to be a key part of this, is that they can’t take this act, that will work, cut out the key parts so that it has no teeth, and then say they passed reform.

AMY GOODMAN: Doug, one last question. Your son committed suicide last year. Did losing him—in 2012. Did losing him affect what you decided to do this year?

DOUG HUGHES: Yes. No, I wasn’t trying to commit suicide, but his death was pointless. It was a waste. And he had so much potential. I looked at what I had done and accomplished and contributed, and I looked at how we’re going to leave this country and this world if things go on the way they are. I’ve got kids. I’ve got two adult children, and I’ve got an 11-year-old daughter. I want to hand them a real democracy, so that they have the power to control their destiny and their children’s destiny. And right now they’re losing that. We’re losing that. And it’s in our power to restore democracy, and we can find the solutions to the problems that we have, if the people have control.

AMY GOODMAN: Doug, we want to thank you for being with us. Doug Hughes is a postal carrier from Florida who landed a tiny personal aircraft known as a gyrocopter on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol last week in a protest to demand campaign finance reform. He was carrying letters to every member of Congress, calling for them to address corruption. Hughes flew about an hour from Maryland into restricted airspace onto the Capitol’s West Lawn, stunning authorities and bystanders. He is under house arrest. We’re speaking to him at his home in Florida. He faces four years in prison. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute. Today is Earth Day.

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