Ruskin, Florida—Two years ago this week, Douglas Hughes, a slender, bespectacled mailman, age 61, climbed aboard a one-man flying machine called a gyrocopter on the narrow runway of a small airport in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He wore a white helmet and blue postal jacket and his craft carried just enough fuel to reach Washington, D.C., about 60 miles south as the crow flies. He had strapped to the landing gear two mail trays containing 535 envelopes stuffed with letters over which he had had fretted, writing and editing until he had pared down his screed to two pages each, 837 words.
He used three exclamation points, but the contents were short of explosive.
“As I see it, campaign finance reform is the cornerstone of building an honest Congress,” he had written. “Erect a wall of separation between our elected officials and big money.”
The first part of Hughes’ audacious, two-years-in-the-making plan—to penetrate protected airspace, buzz down the length of the National Mall and land his craft on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol—went off without a hitch. Somewhat miraculously he wasn’t shot down. Turns out he was too small, too low and too slow for the network of radar systems operating around the capital to distinguish his gyrocopter from a bird. The second part—to deliver his letters to each member of Congress, spark a revolution and rid the federal government of the corrupting influence of Big Money—proved more difficult.
Police arrested him almost before the rotor had stopped spinning. The media made him out to be a danger to society. A prosecutor portrayed him as a lunatic who could’ve taken down a jetliner leaving Reagan National Airport. Hughes pled guilty to operating as an airman without an airman’s license, a felony. He wore an ankle monitor for 13 months and spent three months in federal prison and one more in a halfway house. He lost his right to vote. And the government triggered plans to destroy his gyrocopter.
But the letters he got back.
And so on Wednesday morning, two years after Project Kitty Hawk, he loaded 535 envelopes stamped with vintage circus poster Forever stamps into the back of his dirty Honda Insight, buckled his seat belt, and headed toward the same post office where he worked for 12 years.
In the two years since Hughes surrendered on the Capitol lawn, a lot has changed about what we think we know about campaign funding. At that moment, Jeb Bush was still considered the heavy favorite for the Republican presidential nomination. He had gobs of money and party support and look where that got him. Self-funded billionaire Donald Trump, who wasn’t even in the race, ran his improbable campaign on a seemingly limitless supply of free media. But Hughes has not allowed Trump’s precedent-busting rise obscure an issue he insists is as relevant today as when he flipped the ignition on his gyrocopter. He is a man stuck in time, laboring to divert the nation’s attention from a dozen crises and other obsessions swirling around the capital—Syria, health care, Russian interference, the nuclear option in the Senate and the nuclear program in North Korea—and refocus us on something nobody wants to talk about.
“We have to get money out of politics before we can do anything about climate change, health care, balancing the budget, prison reform, tax reform … all the hot-button issues,” he said. “If you get money out of politics, you wind up with self-deportation. You wind up with a whole new group of people in Washington who are there for public service.
One Sunday morning in February, Hughes stepped to a microphone on a concrete slab on the grounds of the Spirit of Life Unitarian Universalist church—basically a Bernie Sanders rally for Christians—north of Tampa, to deliver a prepared speech to an audience of about two dozen friendly listeners.
“For purely political reasons, both major parties foster the impression that voters have influence over party policy,” he told them, birds chirping in the nearby pine trees. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Donors who make million-dollar contributions to the [Democratic National Committee] or the [Republican National Committee] make the real party policy. Even if that policy isn’t in the party platform. You voters are just fans who cheer your team and contribute votes. Our elected officials in Congress are just players who execute plays called by the party.”
Behind each party is a cartel of rich and powerful puppet masters who pull the strings, he said.
In a talk polished by a pro bono media coach and dozens of on-camera interviews in the past two years, he explained the schemes used by the political parties to sabotage the campaign of Sanders and, less successfully, Donald Trump. He blasted Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates of corporate money, and a lethargic Congress.
“Three facts,” he said. “One, the approval rating for Congress in 2016 was 17 percent. Two, in 2016, 97 percent of incumbents who ran for reelection in the House won. Three, members of Congress of both parties spend 30 to 70 percent of their workday fundraising for their next election.”
And though Hughes didn’t mention this at his talk, there’s another number that speaks to the continued relevance of his mission: $6.9 billion. That’s the amount of money spent in 2016 by all presidential candidates, Senate and House candidates, political parties and independent interest groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and it was $620 million more than in the previous presidential cycle in 2012.
This is life for Hughes now, using whatever fame his flight earned him to find an audience and keep trying. That has included delivering a TEDx Talk and penning an op-ed which ran in the Washington Post. It included a short-lived run for Congress against Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. (It helps to have some money when you’re running for office against the former head of the DNC.) It included inviting a CNN reporter to travel with his family and broadcast live on Facebook when they dropped him off at Federal Detention Center Miami.
It has even included orating behind bars, where Hughes, who admits he has a tendency to be long-winded, wrote letters and practiced speeches on fellow inmates.
“It’s good to have a captive audience,” he joked.
One prisoner asked what Hughes was in for.
“Illegal parking,” Hughes replied.
The man was curious.
"I illegally parked my gyrocopter in front of the U.S. Capitol building."
One prisoner asked what Hughes was in for.
“I illegally parked my gyrocopter in front of the U.S. Capitol building.”
He came home in September wearing prison-issued sandals and carrying a paper sack filled with letters from admirers across the country, places like Walla Walla, Washington, and Bonne Terre, Missouri.
“As your incarceration draws to an end,” one of his correspondents wrote from Kansas, “I wanted to thank you for your bravery in highlighting the cause of Big Money in our democracy with your creative gyrocopter landing.”
The media spotlight faded, but he had made enough of an impact to plant himself inside a reform movement in need of a showman, a mashup of P.T. Barnum and Paul Revere. Folks like Ralph Nader and populist commentator Jim Hightower endorsed his protest. He counts figureheads like Larry Lessig and Kai Newkirk among his friends. Medea Benjamin, from Code Pink, thinks enough of him to let him stay at her house when he’s in Washington.
Out of work, Hughes used his new free time to hatch another plan, which he presented to the Unitarians.
He spoke of the need for populist reform and how, in the 2014 primaries, a Tea Party unknown named Dave Brat knocked off Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia’s gerrymandered 7th Congressional District with the votes of just 3.8 percent of that district’s residents.
“That’s huge leverage,” Hughes said. “In almost any district, there’s already a 4 percent core of activists who could be activated.”
With the right motivation, the right participation, he said, every member of Congress is vulnerable and the Cantor upset is the template. To support reformists running against incumbents, Hughes has proposed traveling the country with his gyrocopter—or a replica—in tow to bring out local media.
“If only 4 percent of the residents in each district will listen and act they will elect their reformist in the primary,” he said, “and together we’ll claim a bipartisan reformist majority in the U.S. House.”
Here’s where the pedantic mailman’s meticulous plan gets … involved. He might need a dozen gyrocopters to keep your attention, but follow along.
The reformist majority is in place by the 2020 election. The next move is a massive rally at the Capitol. (Why not 2018? Hughes says Trump believes that the rich should rule and he would not sign legislation which neutralizes the control money has over the political process. So if an electoral coup were possible in 2018 the only thing they could accomplish is a Constitutional amendment. And that’s not enough.) The massive rally is held in concert with a demand from the new bipartisan reformist majority to hold a vote on reformist legislation. That leadership won’t let that happen, the plan goes, so the reformists will stage a walkout and join the protesters outside the Capitol, not far from the spot where Hughes landed his gyrocopter.
And the media will be there this time. Everyone will behold the shenanigans in the sunshine.
“That’s the purpose of the theatrics,” Hughes said, “to involve hundreds of millions of cynical Americans who thought an honest government was impossible.”
If that sounds farfetched, it’s because the guy who thought it up was the same guy who spent two years learning to fly a gyrocopter so he could deliver 535 letters to Congress and arrest the news cycle so Americans would think for a moment about campaign finance reform. And that kind of worked. It landed him on “Good Morning America” and “The Sean Hannity Show” and “Anderson Cooper 360.”
“It’s messy. It’s loud. It’s imperfect. It’s democracy,” Hughes said. “But get the money out of politics and even the politicians you don’t like will be working for the common good of the people of this country and not for special interests. And that will make all the difference.”
A man in the audience raised his hand.
“Did the mail get delivered to Congress?” the man asked.
“No,” Hughes said. “I picked it up from the police last week.”
He pulled off Interstate 75 in the Tampa Bay suburb of Riverview on Wednesday to finally deliver the mail. He parked under an oak tree at the U.S. Post Office, grabbed the letters from the back and headed for the door.
“This is the limit, as confrontational as I’ll be,” he said earlier. “Delivering letters.”
He’s on probation until October, and could face a year in jail for any perceived violation. And the government has been strict about what he’s allowed to do. They changed the date of his sentencing so it wouldn’t fall during Democracy Spring, and they wouldn’t let him go to Washington for the inauguration.
He wanted to attend the Democracy Spring protests last year, in which more than 1,200 activists were arrested for a staging a sit-in at the Capitol in conjunction with his court date, but the judge changed his sentencing. He wanted to attend the inauguration of Donald Trump and received two complimentary tickets from Representative Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), but was denied permission to visit Washington. (He gave his tickets to Kai Newkirk of Democracy Spring, who was detained with several others for standing on their chairs and reciting the Preamble of the Constitution during the ceremony.)
So he stays close to home, mostly, working on a book about his flight, save for a trip down to the little airport in Wauchula, Florida, a few weeks ago, to witness a gyrocopter-oriented event called Bensen Days. He learned to fly there, and he was welcomed with warmth on his return. He also found the blue sky appealing.
“There has got to be a gyrocopter in my future,” he said. “I miss it.”
As for his gyrocopter with the postal insignia on the tail, he got word it’s been destroyed. He refuses to believe it and keeps checking eBay to see if the old engine turns up for sale. His buddy Mike Shanahan, with whom Hughes worked at the post office and with whom he dreamed up his plan, believes someone has surely recognized the relic’s cultural importance.
“I think it’s sitting in the basement of the Smithsonian,” Shanahan said, “waiting for the right time.”
The sliding doors of the post office parted and Hughes walked inside the bustling lobby, then stood in line.
“I know that face,” said a postal clerk behind the counter.
“Doug!” said another.
He waved and took his place in line.
Two years after his flight, he was still trying to deliver his message. “I’m in the last 30 seconds of my 15 minutes,” he said. “I’m not worried about the fame, but I’m not done yet.” He thinks it has all helped, even if he’s jobless, on probation and sometimes broke. Even if he lost four months with his teenage daughter and wife of 15 years. Even if he can’t vote in another election.
“By doing the impossible and confronting the government in a direct way,” he had said, “I think I made reform possible. People started talking about it, and that’s something.”
His turn, Hughes stepped to the counter.
“I’ve got 535 letters I want to mail,” he said. Then he pushed the envelopes forward.