Why you should care
Because outside activists could make or break the Trump agenda.
Anyone who knows Jason Pye still finds it jarring to see him in a suit and tie. But on a recent afternoon, as the Capitol dome glints beyond the window of a Washington lunch spot, Pye is sharply attired for an upcoming TV hit on Fox Business Network to tweak Donald Trump for a stray comment. Nothing about immigration or gender, though.
Instead, his beef is with Trump’s take on civil asset forfeiture — when law enforcement officers seize suspects’ cash or property — an issue dear to Pye’s wonky libertarian heart.
A few weeks later, the bearded, bespectacled policy director for FreedomWorks, a tea party–allied Washington pressure group, would suit up again, for a visit to the White House with other activists to lobby Vice President Mike Pence for a more conservative Affordable Care Act replacement. Pye nodded a brief hello to the president whom he publicly refused to vote for.
It’s all slightly bizarre for a 36-year-old with no college degree who once manned the Chick-fil-A deep fryer and spent six years drumming for a hardcore punk band called Style Over Substance. Pye’s life as an insurance salesman and impassioned blogger somehow led him to becoming a Beltway influencer two and a half years ago — and though he still feels a tad out of place among the straight-laced Washingtonians, you might not know it on first look.
Raised in Jonesboro, Georgia, Pye worked through high school. An average student, he took a few classes at a local college south of Atlanta. He needed money, though, and dropped out to work a variety of jobs, all the while cultivating himself politically with inspiration from Ayn Rand and conservative talk-show host Neal Boortz. In 2005, Pye started committing opinions to pixels as a blogger; soon, he became the libertarian voice on the influential Georgia political blog Peach Pundit. “Jason has always been who he is, and he’s been very comfortable with having sometimes uncomfortable opinions,” says Charlie Harper, a former Peach Pundit editor. Pye became a fixture in the Libertarian Party, working on the 2008 presidential campaign of former Georgia representative Bob Barr.
But libertarians barely move the needle in Georgia — or nationally. Barr earned 0.4 percent of the national popular vote. Alt-weekly Creative Loafing named Pye one of Atlanta’s 11 “Least Influential” people in 2008, mocking his refusal to ride Atlanta’s federally subsidized transit system and his attempts to avoid using a bank that received a bailout. Pye laughed along, one of the secrets to his success. “A lot of libertarians don’t seem to either have the ability or [to] care about actually dealing with people,” says Barr, Pye’s mentor. “Jason has that ability. He recognizes a philosophy of freedom is important, but he also recognizes you’re dealing with these issues with people, and you’re going to have to learn to develop people skills.”
People skills are not, on the face of it, natural for Pye, who grew up dealing with demons. His father died when he was 12; the family suspects complications from Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. Pye had “serious anger problems” that he reckons were the result of unresolved grief — he didn’t visit his father’s grave until 16 years after his death.
In 2014, Pye was laid off from a web design firm; a week later, he was hired by FreedomWorks as a writer, after he’d made the jump from Libertarian Party to the Ron Paul wing of the GOP. He quickly rose to communications director and, now, director of public policy and legislative affairs. On weekends, Pye commutes between Washington and the Atlanta area, where his house is still climbing back to its precrash value. A tea party–tied organization that leans libertarian and has always operated outside the D.C. mainstream, FreedomWorks’ ethos fits with Pye — and the organization lets him keep his personal platform. Pye says he has turned down Capitol Hill jobs because they didn’t offer the same creative freedom.
Pye spends his days meeting policymakers and rallying FreedomWorks’ more than 5 million activists. Like many conservative pressure groups, FreedomWorks “scores” congresspeople and can be a thorn in the side of Republican leadership, which accuses the group of loud obstinance just to raise money.
Last year, Pye resigned his post with the GOP of Newton County, Georgia, because he said Trump’s stances on trade, among other issues, prevented him from supporting the now president. Pye says it was awkward for FreedomWorks, but he never heard a peep of institutional protest. When November came around, Pye didn’t vote — not even on local issues. (His down-ballot races were all landslides, anyway.)
He’s not a total naysayer. Pye says there are positive things moving in Congress — like a tax overhaul — but he estimates only 70 or 80 “true conservatives” are in the House, and five or six in the Senate. He’s still unsure about the Republican up Pennsylvania Avenue. When Pye unfurled FreedomWorks’ agenda at a January staff meeting, he said that if Trump could reform the tax code, repeal Obamacare and tamp down regulations, he’d vote for his re-election. “I want to be proven wrong,” Pye says, not sounding very punk rock at all.
But over the past two years, the rebel has come a long way. In 2015, when Pye was invited to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to talk criminal justice reform with top Obama aide Valerie Jarrett, he had to borrow a suit from a friend. Now he owns six. His boss quips that when Pye has an important meeting, he goes into the bathroom and emerges, à la Superman, as a buttoned-up Washingtonian. Of course, Freedomworks CEO Adam Brandon notes, when the meeting is done, Pye goes right back to vaping in his Misfits sweatshirt.