"I'm not going to fire you because you're my son, but to have you on any longer would be charity."
It was 2007. After eight years, Jack Hunter's father was kicking his progeny out of the construction business. "That's probably the best thing he ever did for me," Hunter says.
In the four years since being pushed out of the nest, Hunter has gone from being a 96 Wave commentator who wore a luchador mask with a Confederate flag on it to a regular personality on Michael Savage's nationally syndicated show and a fill-in host for Sirius Radio's Mike Church. He's also taken his weekly column in the City Paper and his Southern Avenger videos and parleyed them into gigs with magazines like Pat Buchanan's The American Conservative as well as national websites.
Now, Hunter is doing press for a potentially career-changing opportunity: co-authoring the first book from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), The Tea Party Goes to Washington. The book is one-part campaign trail chronicle and three-parts Tea Party road map.
Last week, while Paul was talking up the book on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Hunter was down the block doing Freedom Watch with Judge Napolitano on Fox Business. The two tapings are indicative of Paul and Hunter's big-fish, little-fish relationship. The duo has seen their stock rise as both Washington and grassroots conservatives look to the right.
When Hunter received the offer to co-author the book in September, turning it down wasn't an option. "My first thought was 'What have I been working towards up to this point if I don't pull this off?'" he says. "I'd have been wasting my time."
While Hunter started out on the radio, it's not your typical disc jockey-turned-talk radio-host story. He says, "I started off as a political guy — not a radio guy. I just had a certain brand of politics that I believed in and wanted to promote."
After a night of listening to Hunter's drunk rambling in 1999, popular 96 Wave disc jockey The Critic invited him on the air. "He gave a stupid kid a chance to talk about his college newspaper article on the radio one time and that took off," Hunter says.
But the name that Hunter used was not his own. Instead, he called himself the Southern Avenger, a personality who, at the time, was best known for wearing a Mexican wrestling mask of the Confederate battle flag. And, yes, Hunter wore the mask everywhere. "The whole idea of the Southern Avenger was to be an anonymous superhero," he says. "So, if I'm going to do a remote at a bar and judge a drinking contest or a wet T-shirt contest, what would a Southern Avenger wear who is a wrestling fan to boot? Well, a wrestling mask."
By 2007, Wave was on its way off the air. Former Wave DJ Richard Todd had already made the move to talk radio, WTMA 1250 to be exact, and he thought it would be a good idea to bring Hunter along. There was talk of bringing the mask with him, but Jack was ready to give up the gag. "I was getting sincere, genuine reactions to my ideas, and I didn't like it getting mixed in with all the shticky stuff at that point," he says. "I was glad to make the transition."
Hunter hasn't given up rock, though. He can still be seen on stage with the lively hard rock/heavy metal cover band Dante's Camaro — one of the few opportunities for barroom theater in Charleston these days. But, unlike most people who dream of a life onstage, Hunter is still dreaming of life as a pundit. "I'm passionate about music," he says. "I'm as passionate or more passionate about this."
Todd gave Hunter a new kind of audience and a chance to get out from behind the mask. That's where we came in. Long-time City Paper columnist Michael Graham, a sort-of conservative counterpoint to what you'd often find in these pages, was heading to Boston for his own radio program. Having long since dropped out of college, Hunter's commentary was exclusively on the radio. "It bothered me I was writing these 700- and 800-word columns that were never getting into print," Hunter says looking back. "When I heard that Michael Graham was leaving, I jumped on it."
It was about this time that Jack was jettisoned from the construction business. "That first year or so was pretty rough. I looked at my tax returns and said, 'How did I eat?'" he says. "Now, I'm doing as well if not a little better financially than I did when I worked construction and I do it just by running my mouth and writing. So, it's not bad."
The Politics of Jack Hunter
One reader review on Amazon for The Tea Party Goes to Washington says it's "for conservatives who have outgrown Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity." Hunter, who self-deprecatingly refers to himself as a "talk radio jerk," is not dismissive of the two radio icons. He just has a different approach.
"That's where I started," he says of listening to Limbaugh as a 17-year-old in the early '90s when the host first shot to the top and reshaped talk radio. But Hunter himself outgrew the talking points. "They say what they think conservatives are supposed to say," Hunter says. "If it's 2005, we're supposed to be for the Patriot Act, so that's what they're for. If it's 2015 and Rand Paul is kicking ass, that's what they will say. It's up to the people who are reflective and more philosophically comprehensive in their conservatism to help steer that direction."
Hunter found other radio hosts to admire. Individuals like David Brudnoy, a conservative radio host from Boston who died in 2004. Hunter says Brudnoy offered a "badass, thoughtful, intellectual show." He also admires other straight talkers like Howard Stern. Hunter's own politics are fearless, calling out hypocrisy, regardless of the party label. The problem for Hunter was that for a long time there wasn't a national politician who embodied that same sort of fearlessness.
"I was a Pat Buchanan guy in 1996 and 2000," Hunter says. "And I really saw that brand of bold right conservative politics wane."
And that's exactly what happened during the presidency of George W. Bush, as the administration pressed a conservative line on social issues and brought war to Iraq. The crowded 2008 GOP presidential primary included hard-line social conservatives like former Ark. Gov. Mike Huckabee and war hawks like Sen. John McCain. But there was another option: Texas Congressman Ron Paul, a Republican who fought the power structure in Washington and provided a fiery conservative challenge to the logic of the war in Iraq.
Hunter was politically smitten. "I have absolutely no problem attaching myself to a candidate who is worthy," he says. "I have no problem being the Buchanan guy or the Ron Paul guy." Hunter would go to late-night meet-ups for Paul's volunteers who were manning letter writing efforts or going door-to-door. He had his radio segment and his weekly column to help the effort and defend Paul from the abuse of his fellow GOPers, but the internet offered Hunter another platform.
While he was still providing commentary at Wave, a co-worker named Carly Maddox suggested that Hunter pursue a new medium. "Jack, you know this YouTube thing is becoming popular," she told him, suggesting he could put his commentary online. Hunter was curious. "What's YouTube?" he asked. After a little exploring, he was sold.
A filmmaker friend from high school showed him how to make the videos. They include his commentary playing over various related pictures. Interspersed is a look at Hunter typing away on his laptop in a dark room. It's a single shot filmed years ago and a tribute to popular TV producer Stephen J. Cannell, who could be seen in the closing credits of shows like The A-Team and MacGyver smoking a pipe and typing away.
In 2007 and 2008, many of the videos offered a spirited defense of Paul's candidacy. As a whole, the videos may have been the single most important platform Hunter had in those early years. "It really is a case of this new technology giving someone like me a real opportunity," he says.
Eventually, his YouTube channel — which has been visited by more than two million viewers — caught the attention of the editors at The American Conservative and it's what ultimately brought Hunter to the attention of Ron and Rand Paul. In fact, when Rand introduces Hunter, he notes "Jack's great videos." His dad does, too.
Jack Hunter Goes to the Party
The Tea Party Goes to Washington doesn't start on the campaign trail; it starts on April 15, 2009, with what can be considered the birth of the Tea Party movement. "People ask me where the Tea Party came from, and I say, 'Well, it's always been there,'" Hunter says, looking back. "That's your talk radio audience. But, until now, your Limbaughs and Hannitys just redirected that populist anger back into the GOP machine. Now, they're seeing beyond that.
"It's something new and separate than what has happened in the past. It's even different than the Republican revolution in 1994. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor voted against $100 billion in spending cuts last month, and the Virginia Tea Party is already going after him. That's unprecedented. That hasn't happened."
Hunter says some criticism is warranted regarding individuals at Tea Party events, but that any populous movement is messy. He recognizes that the name is being co-opted by some in the rank-and-file GOP, but the Tea Party is still sticking to the principles that brought them out two years ago. "Any Tea Party candidate across the country is talking about spending — that is the unifying message," he says.
Others would dismiss Sarah Palin as one of those opportunists co-opting the Tea Party message, but Hunter sees her as a contradiction. "Sarah Palin has establishment ties, but she's part of the learning process," he says. "I think she's a decent, nice, good woman, and I think she's learning just like everybody else. I said early on that she was the perfect example of the Tea Party because she is still figuring things out and so are they."
Rand Paul had learned the Tea Party values firsthand from his father. In the 2010 primaries, Republicans across the country were seeing challengers from the right. The party establishment in Kentucky had already picked a favorite to replace retiring Sen. Jim Bunning: Secretary of State Trey Grayson. But Paul proved voters weren't on the same page, winning an early primary that set the stage for a broad swath of Tea Party primary victories.
With weeks to go before November's general election, it was evident that Rand Paul would not only win, but be a spokesman for the new guard in Washington. Conservative author and pundit Tom Woods called Hunter to tell him Paul was writing a book and needed a co-author. Woods had suggested Hunter for the job. In his recent review of The Tea Party Goes to Washington, Woods saved some room to praise Hunter, noting he has "done such excellent work on behalf of liberty and the message of Ron Paul" and "Jack is as far as one can get from the party establishment."
In fact, that distance could be what convinced Rand Paul to go with Hunter. If the politician wanted to pen a biography, he would have hired a biographer. What Paul wanted from Hunter was someone who shared his vision. Hunter got the call in the last week of September and was in Kentucky by mid-October. In their first conversation, huddled in a car going to a Tea Party event in Paducah, Rand discussed what the book was going to be and what it wasn't going to be. Hunter was glad to find that Rand wasn't ideologically timid at all. He says that the candidate told him two things. "He wanted this book to be edgy and that this was a chance to take this mass movement, the Tea Party, and give it some direction and forward the goals they want," Hunter says.
And that's the bulk of the book. "They say they want to cut spending and get back to a constitutional government — here's how you do that comprehensively," Hunter says. "Rand wrote The Tea Party Goes to Washington because he really believes in the message. Cut spending and limit government. That means all sorts of things that might be radical that they haven't thought about before."
And Washington is paying attention. Things like defense spending and entitlements like Social Security that were sacred cows just months ago are entering the mix when it comes to budget reform. Ron Paul's organization Campaign for Liberty is delivering a copy of the book to each member of Congress.
While the book was being written, Hunter spent the weeks balancing time on the trail with time writing in a Kentucky hotel room, typing about 14 hours each day. He collected about 40 hours of conversations with Paul and grew close with the family. On Election Night, Hunter taught Paul's sons how to play AC/DC's "T.N.T." for the celebration. The campaign trail was an education, but Hunter is quick to note that he thinks that his experience with Paul was unique to what you'd probably find with, say, Mitt Romney for President Inc. "Sometimes they're a little disorganized. A little messy," he says of Rand's volunteers and staff, the vast majority of which are true believers in the Tea Party message. "They are there because they're passionate about the ideology. Sometimes it's frustrating, but it's also endearing. Just like the Tea Party. If it wasn't like that, it wouldn't be real."
This may have been Hunter's biggest opportunity to date, but he's still looking forward to more time in the radio booth and on the bookshelf. "I'd like to be at an Ann Coulter level," Hunter says of his future. "She doesn't have a radio or TV show, but she sells a lot of books, people know who she is, and she has a lot of influence. I say that, not because I'm an egotist, but I want to have people trend in my direction ... Because that's the point, it's not just to say, 'Oh, Democrats suck.' That's useless in my opinion. If you're not changing people's minds or trending them to your position, then you're wasting your time."