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Doug Hughes flies his gyrocopter near the Wauchula Municipal Airport, March 17, 2015 in Wauchula, Fla. (Photo: Tampa Bay Times/Zuma/Newscom)

Can the Gyrocopter Gang Start a Political Reform Movement?

Ralph Nader

Last month when Florida postal worker, Doug Hughes, landed his tiny aircraft, known as a gyrocopter, on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol with 535 letters addressed to every member of Congress, the conversation should have been about his desperate message. Instead, his letter to each Senator and Representative arguing for an end to the corruption of private money in public election campaigns was largely ignored. The media focused instead on an airspace violation with an unregistered aircraft.  The delivery of a letter remarking on racism or sexism in the United States may have gotten far more attention. While issues of gender and race are important and making much progress, less personal topics that don’t invoke a human, emotional reaction, are in danger of being swept under the rug.

Hughes is currently under house arrest in Ruskin, Florida, amidst a torrent of media speculation about how he got through restricted airspace and a no-fly zone undetected (the readers of the radar screens thought he was probably a flock of geese).

Undiverted, the well-read and articulate Hughes, 61, a former Navy veteran, responded on his website, the Democracy Club: “anybody in politics or the news media who want to spend inordinate amounts of time talking about me is avoiding the real discussion—which is about Congress. Let’s keep the discussion focused on reform—not me.”

While recognizing this crucial point, even journalist William Greider couldn’t avoid writing “we spend $600 billion a year on defense, but couldn’t stop a mailman from landing his gyrocopter on the Capitol Lawn.” So far Hughes, not any of the blundering security specialists, is the only one feeling the force of the law.

Hughes started thinking about what to do on campaign finance reform when he met a fellow rural letter carrier, army veteran Michael P. Shanahan. (Yes, all reform starts with a small conversation between citizens.) Shanahan had developed a proposal called “Civilism” which he described as “a systematic plan to fix Congress” by organizing an association of moderates “united by faith in principles of democracy.”

Greider sees this risky landing, which could have cost Hughes his life, as more evidence of an emerging “convergence of left and right…among rank-and-file voters at the grassroots. For all their angry differences, Tea Party adherents and working-class Dems share many of the same enemies and same frustrated yearnings,” he added.

Certainly, Hughes’ condemnation is transpartisan. He points out that nearly half of retired members of Congress are subsequently employed as lobbyists, drawing down big money rewarding their votes as Senators and Representatives. He calls this scenario “legalized, institutionalized bribery.”

It wasn’t as if his spectacular landing on the West Lawn was a secret. His “Freedom Flight,” as he calls it, was announced September 16, 2013 on his website, he told the Tampa Bay Times in detail about his plans, the Secret Service visited his home in October of 2013, and he sent out an all points email to Florida media well before he took off from a Maryland airstrip.

Unfortunately, he got little national press, other than the Tampa Bay Times, which published his letter in its entirety. But, quoting Senator John Kerry’s words in his farewell speech to the Senate that “the unending chase for money I believe threatens to steal our democracy itself,” Hughes did stimulate some congressmen, such as Republican Walter Jones, Jr., to make statements on the House floor about the worsening influence of money in politics.

Interviewed from his home on Democracy Now by Amy Goodman, Hughes, a grandfather, said he sees “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.”

Hughes related that he and Shanahan, in their research, “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.” He also stated their lack of media attention and mentioned the need for a states-driven constitutional convention.

Well, Doug Hughes, you’re on the right track. All you have to do with your buddy Shanahan is get less than one percent of the American people to organize in each of the 435 congressional districts, throw in their pledge to each devote 200 volunteer hours a year and open up one office in each district with two full-time people and you’ll get public financing of public campaigns through a constitutional amendment.

Why? Because this peoples’ One Percent would have the overwhelming public sentiment behind them—Left/Right and unstoppable. So take your Democracy Club viral with the gyrocopter gang. Lead and the politicians will follow.

(Interested voters can go to The Democracy Club to spread the quest for this One Percent in their Congressional District.)


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Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate and the author of "The Seventeen Solutions: Bold Ideas for Our American Future" (2012). His new book is, "Wrecking America: How Trump’s Lies and Lawbreaking Betray All(2020, co-authored with Mark Green).

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