FOR YEARS AS a professional journalist, Quin Hillyer has slung editorial copy under tight deadlines. As a congressional press secretary for half a decade in the 1990s, he was virtually always on call, ready to field probing questions from reporters, day or night. But running for public office is something else entirely. “It’s exhausting. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done,” Hillyer says. “I get up a lot earlier than I used to.”
It was just four months ago that Hillyer went from perennial campaign-watcher to first-time candidate. On May 23, Rep. Jo Bonner, the popular incumbent elected from Alabama’s 1st District, which includes Hillyer’s home of Mobile, announced he would retire to take a vice-chancellorship with the state’s university system. To say the announcement was unexpected would be an understatement: At 53 years of age and having served for little more than a decade, Bonner was still a sprightly young buck by congressional standards.
Privately, Hillyer had batted around the idea of running for Congress in the past, but it was little more than idle chatter. No obvious opportunity had ever presented itself—until now. Hillyer made a few calls following Bonner’s announcement, and things fell into place. He announced his candidacy the same night on live, local television.
Since then, it’s been a whirlwind: opening a campaign headquarters, hiring staff, setting up a website, holding fundraisers, cutting a TV ad, drumming up endorsements and volunteers. “The light at the end of the tunnel is that I’m going to win this thing,” Hillyer says, “and go and serve the cause of limited government and constitutional conservatism in a new way in Congress.”
BY ALL ACCOUNTS, Hillyer is a quintessential movement conservative—by birth, as well as choice. His father attended the Sharon conference in 1960 at the estate of the Buckley family where Young Americans for Freedom was founded. A few years later, little Quin was pushed door to door in a baby carriage as his mother campaigned for Barry Goldwater. By his early teens, he’d become a published writer—in a manner of speaking—when his hometown newspaper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, carried his letter to the editor defending the proposed Kemp-Roth tax cuts. In 1980, he served as a page at the GOP’s national convention in Detroit and watched as Ronald Reagan accepted the Republican nomination for president. By happenstance, in the right place in the right time, he ended up in a photo on the front page of that day’s newspaper.
Even his salt-and-pepper beard springs from movement roots. Hillyer began growing it as a good luck charm in October of 1994, when it appeared the GOP might take control of the House. He kept it for 12 years, and then shaved it off the day after Republicans lost the majority in 2006. The beard made a comeback late in 2010, as the Tea Party tide began to rise. “Darned if we didn’t win the majority again!” Hillyer says with a laugh. “I think I need to keep it for the sake of the country.”
Hillyer graduated from Georgetown in 1986 with a degree in government and theology, and he has spent the intervening decades jumping back and forth between politics and journalism. On the former side, he served in the Reagan Veteran’s Administration, helped found the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism to derail David Duke’s political ambitions, and worked in Washington, D.C. as press secretary for Rep. Robert Livingston from 1991 to 1997. On the latter side, he has written and edited full-time for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Mobile Press-Register, the Washington Examiner, the Washington Times, and, of course, the magazine you hold in your hands.
Some might see tension in this dual role. Journalists pride themselves on providing the unvarnished truth and (if you’ll excuse the phrase) speaking truth to power. Politicians are popularly regarded as willing to say anything for a $2,600 check. About the only thing the two professions have in common is the wide extent to which their practitioners are distrusted by regular Americans.
For Hillyer, though, journalism and politics are complementary, simply two different methods of advancing the ball downfield. Sitting across from him at a Washington coffeehouse, I’m struck most by his sheer earnestness. Quin is a man—as the old formulation goes—who says what he means and means what he says. His writing is like this too: straightforward and direct, with none of the flippancy or oozing sarcasm that characterizes so much punditry in this Internet age. As a columnist, he’s spent years examining which policy proposals are worthy of his readers’ support; as a congressman, those analyses would count for something as votes on the House floor.
“I’m not going to be saying anything different now than I’ve been writing for the last 17 years,” Hillyer tells me. “My record’s out there.” Indeed it is, and he intends to stand by it. Sections of the candidate’s campaign website link to columns he’s written elsewhere. When I ask for specifics on his plan to eliminate the corporate income tax, he points out that he’s not simply making this up as he goes. “You can Google my name and ‘corporate income tax.’ I’ve probably written six columns on that,” he says.
On the issues, Hillyer considers himself a mainstream, Reagan conservative. He’s in favor of “a very strong defense, very sparingly used.” He’s not shy about defending traditional values and spent countless column inches boosting Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential candidacy. He plays the long game: On the much-touted “Gang of Eight” immigration reform bill, for instance, he suggests Republicans wait for better weather. “There is not a single bill that would be bad enough for Obama to sign that is reasonable enough for me to be for. So as long as Obama is president,” he drawls, “I’m again’ it.”
Asked what proposals he would champion in Congress, Hillyer singles out two ideas in addition to the regular conservative agenda:
First, an amendment to the Constitution clarifying governments’ eminent domain power—its power to take private property for public use, provided that it pays just compensation as the Fifth Amendment requires. Historically, governments have used eminent domain to obtain contiguous property needed to build roads, bridges, or utility pipelines. But judges have lately taken a broad view of the “public use” requirement. In the infamous 2005 case Kelo v. New London, the Supreme Court ruled that a city can seize private property and pass it along to developers in hopes of boosting the local economy.
In the wake of Kelo, dozens of states passed measures to limit such practices, which shows a clear appetite for reform. “I think, if worded right, this is one constitutional amendment that could pass,” Hillyer says.
Second, he’d push to zero out the corporate income tax. The plan (as described by one of those aforementioned columns, “Corporate Killing,” published by the Spectator online in 2008) wouldn’t involve a huge hit to government revenue, Hillyer argues. Some of it’s just math: Higher corporate profits would eventually show up (and be taxed) as capital gains and dividends, even not accounting for economic growth. But the economy would boom, too, and companies would race to bring jobs back home. The half of the IRS that collects corporate income taxes could be eliminated. American companies would be more profitable, boosting the value of stock in pension funds and enticing unions to the proposal. And it would triple as an ethics reform: D.C. lobbyists slurp corporate money by the sackful trying to scratch beneficial loopholes into the tax code. In the absence of any such incentive, companies would spend more of their time and money on their products, and less of it in Washington.
THE FINAL STRETCH lies just ahead. Alabama’s governor, Robert Bentley, has made it clear he wants Bonner’s seat filled before Congress convenes again next year, and, accordingly, he’s set an aggressive schedule for the special election. A GOP primary will be held on Sept. 24, with a runoff to follow if no candidate wins a majority of the vote. Since the district is heavily Republican (Romney 62, Obama 37), the winner of the primary is a shoo-in for the seat.
At the time this magazine went to the printer, a handful of Republicans had already announced their candidacies. Hillyer’s strongest competitor appears to be Bradley Byrne, a former state senator and unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial candidate.
Mobile is no small town, but Hillyer says he and Byrne became acquainted once upon a time at church supper club. Hillyer heaped praise on Byrne during his run for governor, calling him “polished” and “savvy,” a veteran “in the front lines of battling the bad-old-boys of state politics.” But he now argues that Byrne hasn’t shown his interest in or philosophy on national issues, and he points out that Byrne spent years as a Democrat. “He’s a good man and a reformer; he’s not a movement conservative,” Hillyer says.
That’s the kind of statement an opponent will be hard-pressed to counter. See, much of Hillyer’s appeal isn’t about policies or beliefs at all. It’s about identity: the family ties, the shibboleths, the slogs through Gingrichian trenches that mark him as one of us.
At a private GOP strategy session held this summer, after the moderator announced Hillyer as a man “who obviously needs no introduction,” here’s how the candidate himself put it: “A lot of you know me. A lot of you know that I’ve been part of this fight—carrying this fight—for a long, long time,” he said. “How often is it that the conservative movement gets a chance to elect one of their own?”