Douglas County sits in one of the few remaining purple congressional districts in the country, meaning the voters in the district, which stretches from Albany through most of Southwest Oregon, including Eugene, are closely split between Democrats and Republicans.
That has contributed to a deeply partisan and tough race between longtime U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, and challenger Alek Skarlatos, a Republican from Roseburg.
The News-Review questioned both candidates about their views on some of the top issues facing the district and the nation. We used both a written questionnaire and interviews, and their responses to each are blended in our report.
At 27, Skarlatos is less than half the age of the man he seeks to replace. Although he has no prior government experience, he has been warmly embraced by conservatives in Washington, D.C., receiving endorsements from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and others, and raising campaign cash from Republicans around the country.
He’s best known for his role in stopping a would-be terrorist on a Paris-bound train in 2015, and starring in a Clint Eastwood movie about the event, as well as appearing on Dancing with the Stars.
Skarlatos has run an aggressive campaign against his opponent. He asserts that DeFazio has done little with his three decades in the House seat, and has even gone so far as to characterize the boat the congressman lives on in D.C. as a yacht. (DeFazio’s responses to these assertions are in the portion of this story detailing his interview.)
Skarlatos said he likes to think that for his age he has a very wide range of experiences.
His top reason for running for Congress is federal policy on timber management. In particular, he said he would support salvage logging of timber that’s been previously burned to prevent it from becoming fuel for later fires.
“It’s good for the environment, it’s good for industry, and of course it brings in money to our economy and county government. There’s more carbon dumped into the atmosphere from a burned stand of trees standing and rotting on the forest than the actual forest fire itself,” he said.
He also said he’d like to see more than 500 million board feet of timber harvested on O&C timberlands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
He said solving the problem of forest fires should be the first step toward dealing with climate change “instead of just forcing everybody to drive Priuses or Teslas.”
Letting Douglas County residents return to managing our forests is key to improving its economy, he said.
He does support diversification as well, and said the best way to do that is through tax cuts and incentives.
On the issue of police reforms being proposed in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, Skarlatos said Oregon is one of the least policed states in the country.
He is adamantly opposed to defunding police, which he said would only result in cuts to training budgets. If that happens, he said, we would see more instances like what happened to Floyd.
“We need more training for law enforcement, especially when it comes to dealing with people with mental health problems,” he said.
He said at the end of the day, if a person with a mental health problem is threatening others, it’s going to require police involvement.
But said he would support preventing officers fired from one agency from going across state lines and getting hired at another.
The Second Amendment is another issue important to Skarlatos.
“We’ve had a huge, huge surge in gun sales over the last year. Between the riots and the defund the police movement and everything else going on in the world right now, people are definitely worried about their safety, and I don’t believe in taking people’s guns away,” he said.
On the federal government’s role in COVID-19, Skarlatos said local government should play the bigger role.
“I mean there’s places like Douglas County or Eastern Oregon where there’s almost no cases or no deaths at least and we’re doing more harm than good by staying closed down,” he said.
He said it’s important for more personal protective equipment, ventilators and medication to be manufactured in the United States. However he said the federal government should use incentives rather than forcing businesses to produce them.
On veterans issues, Skarlatos said he would like to see a voucher system for Veterans Affairs hospitals. This would allow veterans to seek private care, and the VA would have to compete for their business. They’d be forced to improve or basically go out of business, he said.
“I don’t believe in forcing people to go fight for our country and then hanging them out to dry when it comes to their medical care when they get home,” he said.
Skarlatos is also pro-life, in contrast to DeFazio who is pro-choice. Skarlatos said he wants to move “the needle in the other direction” on abortion, at the very least banning late term and partial birth abortion, a point of view that could be important if President Donald Trump is successful in his efforts to appoint a fifth conservative justice to the U.S. Supreme Court.
DeFazio said his experience and three decades in Congress are valuable to his district, as is his role as chairperson of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
“The House is a seniority based organization, so being there a long time gives you one heck of a lot of clout,” he said.
He also said that analysts from both parties agree the House is likely to remain led by Democrats after the election.
He said he’s used his clout to bring transportation projects home to his district, including street and bridge repair and having harbors and jetties restored.
“A freshman minority member will be able to do none of that,” he said.
DeFazio has long supported, along with a bipartisan coalition of Oregon congresspersons, a sustainable harvest of 500 million board feet from O&C timberlands.
But he said the biggest factor in the recent wildfires across Oregon was climate change.
“The forests were record dry because of lack of snowpack, which is becoming a consistent problem. The humidity dropped to 6% and the wind gusted over hurricane force. Nothing about that is normal,” he said.
Foresters told him old growth burned in parts of the McKenzie River corridor where that had never happened before.
And he said the winds were like a Santa Ana event that California might expect but that’s unprecedented here.
DeFazio has passed legislation to increase fuel reduction in the forest, but he said both managed industrial lands and old growth forests burned. So fuel reduction alone isn’t going to solve the problem, he said.
DeFazio’s Moving America Forward transportation package would reduce climate change by electrifying the national highway network. But it hasn’t received much Republican support, he said, because Republicans don’t believe in climate change. The package passed the House, but has stalled in the Senate.
DeFazio said he’s not opposed to salvage logging, but it has to be done carefully, with an eye to avoiding landslides in the winter.
While Skarlatos has asserted DeFazio supports defunding police, DeFazio said that’s a lie.
“I have spoken out early on against defunding,” he said. He agrees that Oregon is one of the least policed states and said what the police need is help.
He wants to see more programs like one in Eugene that assists police officers with support from mental health professionals who can be called in to deal with a crisis.
“What I support are tools that will help the police,” he said.
He said he also supports community policing, which again doesn’t involve defunding police.
“Community policing is done by sworn, trained law enforcement officers. It’s just a different way of doing it. You assign people to neighborhoods as opposed to just cruising, and it has worked very effectively in many areas,” he said.
He also supports requiring police to wear body cameras and banning carotid holds like the one that killed Floyd.
DeFazio said he’s been working hard on getting another COVID-19 comprehensive stimulus package passed, or at least the aviation, individual checks and small business checks that the president most recently said he would approve.
“I don’t know why it’s so difficult. People really need it. It’s politics and right now politics are nuts,” he said.
In recent years, DeFazio said he has pushed many bills through the House on bipartisan votes. Too often in recent years, he said, they’ve died in the Republican-led Senate.
Recent legislation he’s worked on includes a bill the House passed recently to take away the antitrust immunity of the health insurance industry, which he said would save consumers billions of dollars.
He said he will fight to protect the Affordable Care Act, saying 300,000 people in his district depend on its protections for those with pre-existing conditions. He said Skarlatos wants to eliminate the act, and voiced skepticism about his challenger’s claim to support protecting those with pre-existing conditions. DeFazio said neither Skarlatos nor the Republicans in Congress have put forward a plan to do that.
DeFazio does live on a boat when in D.C., but it might not be quite what comes to mind when Skarlatos uses the word yacht to describe it.
It’s worth $87,000, with 350 square feet of interior living space, and the payments and other costs are cheaper than an inexpensive basement studio apartment there, he said.
“It’s smaller than the living room in either of the houses that Skarlatos bought with his proceeds from the movie and Dancing with the Stars. So if I live on a yacht, he lives in a mansion,” DeFazio said.