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“Notoriety’s Free”: Independent Candidate for Congress Runs as a Pirate PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
Tuesday, 10 October 2006 22:51


James Hill The race for Congress in Iowa's First District is already bordering on the ridiculous - with the national Republican party trying to tag Bruce Braley as a Communist, for instance - so why not throw a pirate into the mix?

James Hill is a 42-year-old Eldridge resident who will appear on the ballot as a Pirate. Not as a member of the Pirate Party, mind you, but as a pirate. He is as coarse and unpolished as that tag would suggest, with bushy red sideburns and a mustache that make him look like a biker.

He's astute, too. Hill understands that ideas and hard work will only get an independent candidate so far. You need a gimmick. "Publicity costs a heck of a lot of money," Hill said. "Notoriety's free."

And a lot of people who meet him will find him a compelling voice for their dissatisfaction with contemporary American politics.

"The power of the two political parties has reached critical mass," he said. "There's almost ... no voices left in the middle. And I think that's somewhat dangerous to democracy ... . Eventually the party power will overrule any judgments that are for the benefit of democracy or the republic itself."

Hill said that a major problem with Congress is that the legislative process has been corrupted. Last-minute pork gets added, and unrelated amendments bog down bills. Lawmakers often don't even know what's in legislation, he said, and they certainly don't read it.

Money is the poison, Hill said. He doesn't accept any - from anybody. He wants to outlaw lobbying. When asked about the likelihood of the Supreme Court ruling any such law an unconstitutional restriction on political speech, he replied, "At the end of the day, we have to make the damn statement."

Hill doesn't have a detailed platform, but he does believe some things strongly. "It is wrong to let children go hungry," he said, and social-welfare programs shouldn't be cut because some people abuse them. "For every welfare queen they ever dug up, there were 50,000 people that really, really needed help."

For the most part, though, Hill believes that vested financial interests make it virtually impossible to distinguish truth from spin in Washington; it is therefore difficult to truly understand the issues, he said. "The more I tried to write an elaborate platform, everything kept bringing me back to the money," he said. "It sounds kind of chickenshit, but at the end of the day, it all goes back to that. The information we get, the data we get out of our House of Representatives, is so god-damned skewed, so twisted. Without political reform, the rest of the issues are almost a moot point."

He plans to spend $4,500 on his campaign, and he's already spent nearly $2,800, he said. His target is to get 10,000 votes on election day.

Hill supports full public funding of federal campaigns. Even if 12 candidates unaffiliated with any party get the necessary signatures to be on the ballot, he said, they should all have access to the same amount of money as Democrats and Republicans. That's the only way to break the stranglehold of the major parties, he said: "I think we need that for a while."

He wants to curtail last-minute earmarking of legislation. He wants to limit amendments to alterations directly related to a bill's subject.

He also doesn't take himself too seriously. "Albert Schoeman, the other guy that is running as an independent, is probably an infinitely smarter and better candidate than I am," Hill said. When asked the potential impact of a Pirate win, he said, "One time, one election cycle, is all it would really take. Nothing would send a message to Washington like sending an idiot like me there."

And some of his ideas are a little silly. "I want to put a damn Web cam in my office," he said. "See when I'm at my desk."

But the self-deprecating approach masks a left-leaning idealist who is particularly articulate when talking about the way politics have been professionalized. The American republic was meant to be a citizen legislature, he said, and the people who set it up didn't anticipate career politicians. To return that spirit, he said, he wants to mandate attendance and lengthen sessions, to allow the full vetting of legislation. "Why not attach real sacrifice to service in the House?" he said. "Bring an element of service back to it."

A 1982 graduate of North Scott High School, Hill said he worked with race horses for nearly a dozen years before starting with Safety Kleen. An on-the-job injury in 2002 has kept him out work for the past four years. (His Web site even includes an X-ray from his 2005 spinal surgery.)

The injury was the genesis of his run for Congress. "Too much time on my hands," he said. "A combination of that and too much television. Watching the talking heads, the politicos on television screaming over each other."

Hill's political heroes are as disparate as John McCain, Jimmy Carter, and Harold Hughes, and in them he sees a little of himself. "The guys that have seemed to stay the straightest are the guys that actually suffered a little at some point in their lives," he said. And after his back injury, he dealt with depression. "I have two really good things in common with Abraham Lincoln: depression, and I'm hideously ugly."

Some people will undoubtedly be turned off by some of his positions. He opposes gun control, believes that abortion shouldn't be outlawed unless there are workable, realistic policies in places to prevent unwanted pregnancies and increase adoption, and wants to legalize marijuana.

But he believes that the culture of Congress can be changed, and that's the driving force of his campaign. "Some of these are just simple things," he said. "Lengthen the sessions. Strip down the bills. Make 'em show up."


For more information on Hill's campaign, visit (


To listen to the Reader interview with James Hill, visit (

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