ROSEBURG, Ore. (KOIN) — A former Oregon National Guardsman who rose to international fame when he and his friends stopped an attempted terrorist attack in France is looking to unseat longtime congressman Peter DeFazio.
Alek Skarlatos, 27, was one of three Americans on a train bound for Paris in 2015 when a gunman entered their compartment. He, alongside childhood friends Spencer Stone and Anthony Sadler, tackled the gunman. They received top awards in both France and the United States, and went on to play themselves in the Clint Eastwood movie “The 15:17 to Paris.” Skarlatos even appeared on a season of “Dancing With the Stars.”
Since then, though, he’s been back in Roseburg where he has lived since high school. In 2018, he unsuccessfully ran for Douglas County commissioner. Now, he has his sights set on representing Oregon’s fourth congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives.
KOIN 6 News sat down with Skarlatos at Casey’s Restaurant in Roseburg. The establishment is one of a handful of businesses in the state to be hit with a $14,000 fine for opening in spite of state shutdown orders. In late May, the congressional hopeful posted on Facebook in support of Casey’s.
“I just think that we went a little overboard shutting down everywhere, regardless of the number of cases, especially in rural Oregon,” Skarlatos said.
Douglas County, where Roseburg is, has had 29 cases and zero deaths.
“I think we should have adjusted a little earlier and I think Casey’s had to do that themselves just to survive, and of course they were punished by the state of Oregon,” he added.
While coronavirus has certainly upended the usual campaign process, halting rallies and door-to-door efforts, it’s not a central part of Skarlatos’ platform. That designation goes to Oregon’s timber industry.
Oregon’s timber industry has been a hot button issue, especially in recent years. Convoys of trucks rallied at the Capitol more than once, and Timber Unity grew from a hashtag to an organization complete with a political action committee (PAC). While Timber Unity does not endorse federal candidates, board member Todd Stoffel told KOIN 6 News Skarlatos is “a member of our movement and we are very proud of him stepping up in his district.”
“There’s no real backup plan to the timber industry for southwestern Oregon,” he said. “Seeing how little income has been brought in from the timber industry, how little tax dollars for county government has been brought in from the timber industry is probably going to be my main priority. Get us back out into the woods managing the forests in a way that prevents forest fries and then brings in money for the counties and schools and things like that.”
Employment in the timber industry has been chopped nearly in half since 1990, but wood product manufacturing is still a large part of the economy in rural Oregon. In Douglas County, where Skarlatos is based, more than a quarter of all jobs were connected to the timber industry in 1988, according to state economist Brian Rooney. Now, that’s down to about 11%.
Rooney says the decline comes from a number of factors, including a slight decrease in demand, better technology that allows more lumber to be processed with fewer workers, and of course environmental regulations.
“I would love to come to a compromise with the Endangered Species Act and at least get our harvest above 500 million board feet,” Skarlatos said, referring to the annual harvest minimum set by the O&C Act, which aimed to manage more than 2 million acres of forest in Western Oregon in a way that would provide a permanent source of timber supply.
The O&C Act has been chipped away at by other environmental regulations, though, according to Skarlatos, and now Oregon is logging far below the previous harvest minimums.
“I think we could do a lot just by including salvage logging,” he said. “Even if we just come to a compromise when it comes to harvesting more trees to prevent forest fires alone, and look at these overgrown forests and decide to thin there.”
A ProPublica investigation into Oregon’s timber industry shed light on Wall Street trusts and investment funds gaining control of forest lands and benefiting from massive tax cuts that have cost counties billions. Skarlatos said he is open to reinstating the severance tax, but only if it accompanies more logging on federal lands.
Veterans’ issues, police reform and more
After timber and the economy, Skarlatos ranks veterans affairs as a top concern. He believes the Veterans Health Administration needs a complete overhaul, starting with a voucher system to allow veterans to choose where they get care.
“We shouldn’t send people to war if we can’t at least commit to helping them with their medical care with injuries they sustained overseas when they get back,” Skarlatos said.
Gun rights rank high on his list too, especially in light of current unrest in America.
“I think seeing these riots going on in major cities across the country just reiterates how important it is. Police are not always going to be there to help you,” he said. “I think everyone should have a right to defend themselves and their family.”
Speaking of police, Skarlatos acknowledges that reform needs to happen. He said “nobody agrees” with what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis. However, he thinks increased training for police is the solution, not defunding departments.
“By defunding police you’re only going to get worse trained police,” he said.
Skarlatos was not familiar enough with other suggested police reforms, like ending qualified immunity, to endorse any other proposals.
The day after our interview, though, his opponent signed on as a co-sponsor of the “Justice in Policing Act” which encompasses a bevy of reforms including banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants, requiring body cameras, and lowering the standards needed to prosecute police misconduct.
Skarlatos considers himself a Libertarian-leaning-Republican who generally supports President Donald Trump.
“I think everything that he’s done so far has been overall a net positive for this country,” he said.
He also believes in term limits, which brings us back to DeFazio.
“I think 33 years is too long for any politician, but he hasn’t really brought home the bacon for his district,” Skarlatos said. “He’s the chairman of transportation and infrastructure and still has never passed a major piece of legislation.”
Skarlatos also blames DeFazio for what he sees as the district’s steep decline during the past couple of decades, becoming one of the poorest areas in the state and struggling with high homeless rates and drug abuse.
“I know we can do a lot better,” he said. “We have done a lot better in the past.
Running red in a blue state
A Republican hasn’t represented District Four in Congress since the early 1970s. DeFazio has held the seat since 1987, winning re-election every two years since then.
“This district has been trending more and more red as the years go by,” Skarlatos said, adding that Trump only narrowly lost the district in 2016. “It’s gone red for presidential candidates, governor candidates, secretary of state candidates, it’s just never gone red of course in the congressional race that we’re running in. And part of that is a lack of good Republican candidates and organization on the Republican side and of course that’s something that we’re hoping to change.”
Skarlatos scored 70,599 Republican votes in May, while DeFazio won 96,077 Democrat votes. However, non-affiliated voters make up the largest group in the district, and those voters did not get a say in the May primary.
There’s also the issue of money.
Rep. DeFazio has collected more than $1.6 million in contributions this election cycle, many from PACs representing unions, airlines, and other large corporations. Skarlatos has taken in just shy of $500,000 in contributions so far. There is one area he’s beating the incumbent, though: Small individual contributions.
Almost all of Skarlatos’ donations have come in $200 or smaller increments.
“That’s the only way we’re going to out fundraise him because as an incumbent he has the advantage with PACs and even corporations,” he said.
Another takeaway from his first campaign: “There is not real substitution for grassroots support.”
“You can have all the money in the world, but if people don’t want to elect you, they’re not gonna elect you,” he said.
Skarlatos said he doesn’t have a backup plan if he doesn’t win the race.
“I’m not trying to even put my head in that space,” he said.
So, if things go according to plan, he’ll be in D.C. this time next year. Roseburg is where his heart is, though.
“This is my home. These are the people I’m fighting for. This is the reason why I’m going to Congress,” he said. “I would be happy with just serving two or three terms and if I can get what I came to accomplish done, then I would be totally happy to ride off into the sunset and never deal with politics again.”