After his short stint in jail, Doug Hughes returned home to collect a letter from a personal hero. Hughes, the 61-year old postal worker who piloted a gyrocopter onto the lawn of the Capitol, had tried to tell people that it was a harmless stunt to raise awareness of campaign finance reform. Nobody, it seemed, paid attention until the stunt sparked the kind of Washington, D.C. safety panic that livens up slow news days. One of the first signs that the message had actually gotten through came when Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, one of America's most visible campaign finance reformers, sent Hughes an "attaboy" through the mail.
"I’m not going to say it was for what I did," says Hughes, "but it was for why I did it."
Two weeks before the Washington, D.C. court hearing on his stunt—he was charged with a felony—Hughes is embracing his status as a spokesman for campaign reform. He's declared solidarity with the Stamp Stampede, the reform campaign that marks money with warnings "not to be used for bribing politicians." He's been the focus of columns and front page stories about campaign finance as a "rising issue" in the 2016 elections. Buzzing over the Capitol lawn and drawing out a bomb squad actually seemed to cut through the pundit fog about how nobody cared about money in politics anymore.
This new, surreal existence started as soon as the cops showed up. "I think they did it exactly according to formula," he said. "I didn’t want to cause a panic, and I tried not to do that by giving prior warning—for all the good that did. So, the conversation with the police was really something. If they tape recorded it, you could probably sell it as a comedy."
Back home in Florida, under house arrest, Hughes has started working with an assistant to rebuild his website and "get coached on Twitter." This week he joined a conference call of campaign reformers to see what he could add to the ongoing efforts to force a discussion of campaign money into the presidential race. "I’m trying to strategize on the assumption that I'm not going to be locked up," he said.
In the meantime, Hughes was frustrated that the 535 letters he'd attempted to deliver to members of Congress had been impounded. So had the gyrocopter.
"The last word I got they were going to melt it down and make beer cans," said Hughes. "I'm kidding! The last I heard, they've got it in a safe location and it may be evidence. I’m never going to do anything like this again–in case they’re listening on the call, let me be clear about that. The feedback I’m getting says I’ve lit a fire on issue of campaign finance and big money, so I'm going to focus on that."
That didn't mean he had happily parted with the gyrocopter. Ideally, as he focused more on public campaigning and visits to primary states, he could get it back.
"I've got blood invested in that machine," he said. "I could go down a list of that machine, and how I built it. Everyone who's worked on a machine has a piece of his soul in it. But I might not get it back. I knew that getting in."