Cover Story

Hunting for votes

"Hunting for votes" Continued...

Issue: "Barrier riffs," Feb. 10, 2007

Federal prosecutors during a two-and-half-week trial said that Davila initially tried to surrender to the agents with empty hands but then continued to flee on foot. Compean fired 14 rounds at Davila and Ramos fired once, shooting him in the buttocks. The agents then cleaned up the scene and filed a false report, according to prosecutors, who said the agents didn't know Davila was a drug smuggler until after the incident.

The agents have denied the prosecutors' version of events and said they believed Davila was armed and aggressive. Hunter, who has reviewed court documents, believes the agents and says they should be freed: "Even if you believe the facts as presented by the prosecution, which I don't, these men still received longer sentences than some convicted murderers."

When asked if the agents' sentences should be reduced instead of thrown out, Hunter said an administrative punishment would have been more appropriate, and he says more than 70 lawmakers have signed onto his bill for a pardon. U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton maintains that the evidence pointed to the agents' guilt: "If they believed [Davila] was a threat, why did they abandon him? And if they truly believed the shooting was justified, why did they not report it?" Compean and Ramos are appealing the verdict while hoping for a pardon.

As Hunter talked about border security, Eargle navigated her long Cadillac into a small parking space at the Myrtle Beach Hilton Hotel, and Hunter carried her bulky pink bag inside. On the hotel's second floor, a dozen vendors sat behind long tables in a narrow corridor outside a large meeting room, selling scarves, shawls, sashes, pins, costume jewelry, T-shirts, and hats, all in red and purple.

Inside the convention, Hunter and his communications director were the only men in a room packed full of 500 chattering women in red hats of every variety: cowboy hats, visors, baseball caps, wide-brimmed hats with tall plumes of feathers, and others with huge bouquets of flowers. Easing his way through the tight room, Hunter joked: "This is my first Red Hat event."

A long buffet line wound around large tables with red-checkered tablecloths and elaborate centerpieces with themes like the roaring twenties, beach trips, and New Year's celebrations. As a lady carrying a bright red parasol with purple fringe strode by, Eargle introduced Hunter to tables of lively women eating a hearty brunch: "This is Duncan Hunter, ya'll, and he's running for president of the United States!" Most seemed impressed, but others admitted confusion: "What are you running for, honey?" asked one elderly woman. "President," Hunter replied with a smile. "But today I'm just Lois' bag man."

Hunter donned the red baseball cap he bought for his wife and greeted small crowds of women eager to shake hands and pose for photos with a presidential candidate. A woman with a purple jacket and red satin hat topped with a purple bouquet of flowers hurried over. "I see you all the time on Wolf Blitzer and Lou Dobbs!" cried Maria Jordan from Myrtle Beach.

Adding that she used to be "a John Edwards girl," Jordan said she plans to support Hunter because of his positions on immigration and supporting the military. Moving along with the crush of the crowd, Jordan waved goodbye to Hunter and called out: "Good luck, Mr. President. . . . This is our America!"

Leaning on a nearby wall, Hunter's low-key communications director, Roy Tyler, checked his cell phone and waited on his boss. A long-time Republican and restaurant owner originally from Texas, Tyler met Hunter in 1994 when the congressman frequented his El Cajon eatery, Tyler's Taste of Texas. Both Vietnam veterans, the pair soon became hunting and golfing partners.

Though Tyler has lots of business experience, he's never dealt with the media and admits it's "overwhelming." But he says Hunter is always optimistic about any task, wryly remembering what the congressman told him when he offered him the job: "It probably won't take up too much of your time." Tyler says he worked 15 hours the first day, "and I haven't stopped since."

In the downstairs lobby, Hunter called his wife of 33 years, Lynne. The couple has two sons and four grandchildren. Their oldest son served two tours of duty in Iraq with the U.S. Marines. After chatting for a few minutes, Hunter told his wife: "I miss you too."

On a long ride to lunch, the congressman drove a silver Envoy past empty water parks and miniature golf courses while Tyler composed emails on his laptop in the front seat. The backseat floorboard bore the telltale signs of three days of campaigning on the road: McDonald's wrappers, half-eaten nachos, and empty water bottles.

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