After finishing a plate of hot dogs and brownies, Hugh Webster addressed a small gathering of 30 supporters at a campaign fundraiser in East Raleigh. Wearing an olive-green safari shirt, khaki shorts and a bolo tie engraved with a buffalo, the Republican candidate for U.S. Congress walked to the center of the room.
In a brief speech, he rallied the crowd around one of the central tenets of his campaign.
"After my election, I will represent everybody," he said, pausing for dramatic effect. "Every citizen, every legal resident."
Webster's outspoken anti-immigration stance drew several donors to his fundraiser, and some of his supporters say it's the issue that gives him a shot at winning.
A former six-term state senator from Caswell County, Webster made his name in the General Assembly for his brash personality and his tendency to vote for bills other senators viewed as political suicide.
Webster, an accountant by trade who was raised on a Caswell County tobacco farm, refers to illegal immigration as "the invasion." During his time in the N.C. Senate, he opposed issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and permitting them to attend college with in-state tuition.
He was also known for his vociferous opposition to taxes—he has called the Internal Revenue Service an "abomination against humanity" and claims to have never voted for a budget that increased taxes for voters.
In 2006, Webster lost his senate seat by fewer than 500 votes after taking the unpopular position of opposing a teacher pay raise while introducing a bill that would increase the salary for state legislators. (Webster argued that the bill would allow middle-class citizens to run for office, which he said is restricted to the "rich, retired and retarded.") Still rankled by the defeat, Webster, 65, is waging a new electoral battle in 2008: unseating Democratic U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, a task Webster acknowledges will be "difficult." According to their July quarterly reports, Webster has raised less than $21,000, while Miller has raised more than $740,000, or roughly 35 times that of the challenger.
"He's got an uphill battle," said state Sen. Neal Hunt (R-Wake), who attended the Sept. 14 fundraiser and has contributed to Webster's campaign. "It's going to take a dramatic series of events for him to win. As you know, it's sort of a gerrymandered district. It's going to be tough, but he's going to give it a shot."
Webster has alleged that, while serving as chairman of the redistricting committee in the state Senate, Miller secretly gerrymandered the 13th district for himself—a charge Miller denies.
"A lot of people viewed a lot of different drafts. It's true that Hugh himself might not have been in the loop, but there were public hearings all over the state, and then the committee deliberated the announced proposed maps, and then there were more public hearings, before there were ever any votes in committee, or by the House and the Senate," Miller told the Indy.
In response to Webster's allegation that the shape of the 13th District, which straddles seven counties, violates the North Carolina constitution, Miller said that his committee's redistricting conformed to the Voting Rights Act—which made it unconstitutional to have segregated voting districts—and, in accordance with that act, was approved by the federal Department of Justice.
Though he's fought to uphold the Constitution, boost charter schools and keep taxes low, Webster's core issue is illegal immigration. He is quick to distance himself from extremist groups—he said he has dealt with both "leftists lunatics and rabid rightists"—but Webster's chances of winning the 13th District hinge on courting the anti-immigration vote.
NumbersUSA, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, and other self-styled "immigrant-reduction" groups have lambasted Miller for opposing bills that would cut funding to "sanctuary cities" (municipalities that refuse to report the immigration status of their residents to federal agencies), end the visa lottery program and construct a 700-mile border fence, among other strict enforcement measures.
Miller, in response, said that Webster is clearly against illegal immigration, but said he was "not sure how that translates into any kind of policy."
William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee (ALIPAC), has endorsed Webster over the incumbent, whose positions on immigration Gheen says are "massively rejected by white, black and legal Latino North Carolina voters." Gheen was Webster's legislative assistant through 2006; after taking a temporary leave to lobby the legislature on an immigration bill, he quit Webster's losing campaign to become the full-time president of ALIPAC, which advocates for strict immigration enforcement. The ALIPAC Web site tracks crimes allegedly committed by illegal immigrants and Latinos, with headlines like "Another gang rape by Latino gangs reported," "The Killers Next Door" and "The Tide Has Turned! Americans have illegals on the run!"
Webster refused to comment on Gheen and said he doesn't have time to read ALIPAC's materials, yet Gheen credits Webster, along with retired state Sen. Fern Shubert, with introducing him to the "emerging issue" of immigration.
"Hugh Webster and Fern Shubert were on this issue before I was," Gheen said. "Through my research for them both, as a paid employee, I discovered more and more about it, and I started doing my own project on the side. I was talking to Hugh probably 20 times a day when ALIPAC's platform was written."
Webster prides himself on speaking Spanish, maintaining friendships with Latinos and having lived in Latin America and Africa—all of which fosters in him a rare international perspective, a sharp contrast to his fiery anti-immigration rhetoric.
"We think that everybody should look at the world through our eyes," he said recently, while starting up a vintage Fordson tractor on his farm in Yanceyville. "We just don't do a decent job, in our public schools, of teaching what we Americans need to know about seeing other people."
Beyond merely stating his support for "legal immigration"—a popular non-admission among anti-immigration activists—Webster acknowledged the bureaucratic failings of the current immigration system and said that it has negatively affected several resident-alien friends of his. However, he refuses to accept "amnesty" as a solution.
"People who came here breaking our law—they are criminals," he said. "Once you've crossed that line, until you re-cross that line and set it straight, it's hard to expect them to be anything other than a committer of crimes."
"I'm not advocating that we hang any of them," he later said of illegal immigrants. "I'm not advocating that we don't give them a K-12 education, and I'm not advocating that we don't give them emergency medical care."
When asked if anti-immigration rhetoric could incite violence, Webster dismissed the notion.
"If I thought bad thoughts about God, there might be a meteor come through this ceiling here," he said. "But I don't think so."
He added: "But if you come onto my turf, with weapons, and I think you might use them against me, then you will incite violence. And if you shoot at me, and you realize that I'm armed, and you turn away from me, I'm going to get you. I may not get you right now, but I'm going to get you."
The comment, Webster explained, was in reference to two border agents convicted of attempted murder for shooting a marijuana smuggler in the back at the U.S.-Mexico border, a cause celebre for CNN anchor Lou Dobbs, the Constitution Party and other fringe groups.
Like much of the discourse on illegal immigration, Webster's shows flashes of violence, which he tempers with a genuine concern to solve the immigration crisis. His cultural knowledge of Latin America adds another element to his speech, which Hunt described as "saying what he thinks without worrying about political consequences."
When asked about Steve Bizzell's recent comments to The News & Observer, in which the Johnston County sheriff called Mexicans "trashy," Webster said that Bizzell should not have apologized to Latino rights groups.
"What El Pueblo and La Raza should be doing is organizing clean-up crews, organizing Saturday educational crews," Webster said recently, following a Kids Voting forum in Raleigh. "They should be teaching these youngsters: Don't you get tangled up in any bad, bad gangs. Look after your family. Respect the women. Respect the people. Clean up your community. Study. Learn. Just because you're male doesn't mean your macho self is not responsible for your own doings."
Tony Foriest, who narrowly defeated Webster in N.C. Senate District 24 two years ago, said that such rhetoric reflects a Republican agenda of "getting people fearful, having people resist any kind of change."
Foriest said that Webster, who is not alone in his anti-immigration stance, stands out for being "very passionate about what he believes in."
"He makes it very clear where he stands, and how he feels—you get a sense of how he would handle issues that are in dispute. Whether you like that or not depends on who you are. Obviously, he got a lot of votes. My race with him was extremely close, so obviously a lot of people think like he thinks."
In another moment of brutal honesty, Webster puts it another way:
"Look, most of my friends are taxpayers. Most of my supporters are taxpayers. Somebody tell me why I should bend over backwards to seek out support from somebody who's not a taxpayer."