Douglas Hughes, Who Landed Gyrocopter at White House, Challenges Debbie Wasserman Schultz | New Times Broward-Palm Beach


Gyrocopter Pilot Doug Hughes Challenges Debbie Wasserman Schultz for Office

The end for South Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz could come this August, in a Democratic congressional primary, at the hands of a 62-year-old mail carrier who once landed a tiny helicopter on the U.S. Capitol building’s lawn. 

The mail carrier, 62-year-old Douglas Hughes, who lives just outside Tampa, announced at the end of 2015 that he’s running to beat Wasserman Schultz. He already has the support of one of the nation’s most prominent academics, Harvard professor and former presidential candidate Lawrence Lessig.

“You know, with everything I’ve read that he’s sent me, everything I’ve seen him write, he’s convinced me,” Lessig told New Times, with the added caveat that the pair has never met in person. The only problem, of course, is that Hughes might end up in prison before the election. 

Hughes, a thin, wiry man with a gray goatee, crash-landed into the American political scene on the wings of a one-man gyrocopter, which is little more than a folding chair with blades whirring at the top, like something Da Vinci would fly. In 2013, Hughes, who has no experience in politics, was trying to brainstorm ways in which he could get the entire country to pay attention to the corruptive power of money in politics. Hughes realized that a massive stunt could, in theory, get the entire world talking about money in politics, if only for a few hours. “We thought, how can we deliver the message in a way that’s dramatic?” he asked. “Once I saw a picture of a gyrocopter online, I thought, ‘This is great, but who are we going to get to fly it?’”

He then realized he couldn’t possibly ask someone else to get arrested on his behalf and sank around $25,000 into buying the chopper himself. He spent two years — and more cash — learning to fly it. “I absolutely raided my retirement money from the Post Office,” he says, adding that he sold an old WASR-10 rifle to raise money for the trip. So last April, he loaded the gyrocopter onto a car, drove up from Florida to Virginia, took to the skies, and landed directly outside the Capitol, letter in hand. Upon landing, the Secret Service immediately apprehended him. He is now fighting to avoid a potential ten-month stint in jail.

“Was it worth it?” he asked. “Heck yes. Do I need to be mentioned in the history books? No.”

Lessig, who was unaware Hughes was planning on making his flight, later raised $10,000 on the crowdfunding site GoFundMe to help pay for Hughes’ legal defense.

On December 23, Hughes asked permission from the court to travel to South Florida, so he could, without warning, start a surprise run for Congress here. He says he intended to make a more formal announcement, but as people saw his candidacy in filings, word got out before he was ready. “I regret very much that this whole thing has come out the way it has,” he says.

He plans to run in District 23, a seat occupied by embattled Democratic National Committee Chair Wasserman Schultz. The decision to run in South Florida, rather than near his home in Ruskin, Florida (running in a district other than the one in which a candidate resides is legal at the federal level), appears to have little to do with the concerns of South Floridians and everything to do with the fact that Wasserman Schultz may be the most hated Democrat in Congress today.

“I have been watching, as many people have, the way the Democratic National Committee favors Clinton over anybody else,” he says, referencing the comparatively small number of presidential debates Wasserman Schultz has scheduled during this election season. Critics contend that Wasserman Schultz is a close political ally of Clinton’s and is working behind the scenes to undermine challenger Bernie Sanders by keeping him away from television. At the beginning of December, after the committee suspended the Sanders’ campaign’s access to vital voter data, critics began calling for Wasserman Schultz’s head. “I agree with the phrase, ‘They don’t want a convention; they want a coronation,’” Hughes says. “This isn’t supposed to be the role of the Democratic Party. The role of the party is supposed to be neutral.”

Hughes says he can ride the same sort of anti-establishment sentiment currently propelling Sanders toward the White House. “There’s a rebellion going on on both sides,” he says. “I don’t agree with the Tea Party on issues at all, but if you listen to those people, you hear them using a lot of the same rhetoric as progressives.” He uses former House Minority Leader Eric Cantor’s ouster as an example — after Tea Party voters became dissatisfied with Cantor’s ties to big-money politics, primary voters replaced him with a complete unknown, David Brat.

If this sounds like lunacy, it might not be — Lessig actually agrees with Hughes here. “There’s definitely a contingent of Democrats who are deeply frustrated with, particularly, how the presidential primary season has gone,” Lessig says. “I think Clinton is likely to be the nominee — if so, Debbie Wasserman Schultz becomes a very powerful person. There is a frustration among Bernie Sanders supporters, and that could easily manifest itself in a targeted response.” Once in office, Hughes plans to recruit "100 to 200" members of the House to fight to overturn Citizens United, but he does not seem to have a clear plan as to how.

For now, Hughes, who grew up in Santa Cruz, California, and moved to Florida after his first marriage collapsed around 1990, is still trying to get his head around South Florida politics. This is tough, considering he needs to clear any travel plans with the court. When stuck awaiting trial, he says he scrolls through New Times and the Sun Sentinel (which he repeatedly called “the Sun”). His next act of civil disobedience — a 400-person march from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. — appears to have virtually no ties to anything Floridian.

Plus, things may become completely impossible if he is sentenced to jail time in April. (He can still legally run for federal office as a convicted criminal.)

Somehow, he isn't worried. “If I am sent to jail in April and the max sentence is ten months, I can be out in time to be sworn in.”

For more on Hughes, see
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Jerry Iannelli is a staff writer for Miami New Times. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He moved to South Florida in 2015.
Contact: Jerry Iannelli

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