Gyrocopter man's last hours of freedom

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Story highlights

  • The Florida activist who flew a gyrocopter to the Capitol reported to prison
  • Doug Hughes is serving a 120-day sentence
  • CNN was granted exclusive access to Hughes during his final hours of freedom

Washington (CNN)The Florida man who pleaded guilty to a felony after landing a gyrocopter on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol last year began serving his 120-day sentence in a Florida prison on Tuesday. He granted CNN exclusive interviews during his final hours of freedom.

Doug Hughes, 62, started a national conversation about security over some of the country's most famous restricted airspace, but he did it all in the name of getting money out of politics. The former mailman planned on delivering letters on the subject to every member of Congress.
    If you ask someone, they're more likely to remember his method than his message. More than a year later, Hughes is still explaining at length the mission he was trying to accomplish.
    "I had the intention to deliver the message to Washington in a way that was so spectacular," Hughes said in an interview with CNN in his Ruskin, Florida, home. "Not so much to the Congress, but getting the message to the people that corruption is the reason that we have the logjam."
    And Hughes is not alone. While some were quick to write Hughes off as crazy, he is surrounded by other activists fighting for campaign finance reform.
    "Sadly, in order to get attention, you sometimes have to do things that are absolutely ridiculous. That's why I want to address the people who think what Doug did was a stunt or ego or something. Absolutely not," friend and fellow activist Rhana Bazzini told CNN during a visit to Hughes' home the day before Doug reported to prison.
    Hughes became the face of a larger network. It was like-minded activists who marched to the U.S. Capitol in April as part of the Democracy Spring movement. Hundreds were arrested.
    He and many of his fellow advocates endorse the idea that political candidates and incumbents should pledge to avoid big money and lobbying efforts. In an interview with CNN, Hughes said that he believed his plan to get money-influenced incumbents out of office could work in a handful of years.
    Hughes considered running as a primary challenger to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, also the Democratic National Committee chairwoman. But Hughes instead endorsed Tim Canova, Wasserman Schultz's primary challenger.
    Less than two hours before reporting to prison, Hughes, his wife Elena, their 12-year-old daughter Kathy and his friend Mike Shanahan paid a visit to Canova's Hollywood, Florida, campaign office. Doug brought Democracy Spring's Equal Voice for All Declaration for Canova to sign. The candidate welcomed his "friend" and signed the pledge as his staffers applauded.
    Canova wasn't the only politician whose support Hughes earned after his flight. Hughes' representative, Rep. Kathy Castor, signed the pledge in early June when Doug paid a visit to her office.
    A statement posted on Castor's Facebook page read in part: "All may not agree with Doug's methods, but he risked his life and now has traded his liberty to underscore that Congress owes the American people a fair, transparent system that represents the true spirit of Democracy."
    Now that Hughes is a convicted felon, the once and future candidate can no longer vote or run for state-level political office. He can, however, run for national office and return to Capitol Hill, this time via car, foot or public transportation.
    "My last legal opportunity to vote was the vote I cast for Bernie Sanders in the primary," Hughes said in a conversation with friends around his dining room table. "But Bernie Sanders as an individual is not important. The values he brought into the election are critically important."
    Many have asked Hughes what made him decide to take his flight last year. The answer lies deeper than his zeal for campaign finance reform. It's rooted in personal tragedy.
    In 2012, Doug's 24-year-old son, J.J., killed himself and the driver of a car he hit head-on in what the authorities deemed a suicide. It was shortly after his son's death that Hughes decided to make a grand gesture in the name of his cause.
    "Something good can come out of tragedy. The end of J.J.'s life motivated me to do something meaningful with what's left of mine," Hughes said. "It left me significantly without fear."
    Despite having lived through the loss of a child, Hughes has never lost his positive attitude. After pleading guilty to a felony charge of operating as an airman without an airman's certificate, he frequently referred to his four-month sentence as a "vacation."
    He even made light of the fact that his prison identification number ends in 007, jokingly likening himself to James Bond, the second most-famous gyrocopter pilot. Instead of spending his last day of freedom quietly at home, he took Kathy go-karting.
    The four-hour drive from Ruskin to Miami Federal Detention Center was fueled by cookies, powdered donuts and laughter. Doug and Kathy rode in the backseat where the elder Hughes took the opportunity to explain the Electoral College to his daughter.
    The ride home was largely silent. As Shanahan slowed his car in front of the Hughes' home, Kathy shifted in the seat her father had occupied hours earlier.
    "I wonder what my dad is doing right now," she said.