Mr. DeFazio Goes to Washington (Again)

The seasoned congressman wants to continue to rebuild American infrastructure

Congressman Peter DeFazioPhoto by Todd Cooper

After more than 30 years of being Oregon’s 4th district congressman, Peter DeFazio isn’t quitting yet. 

The representative is planning to tip the “purple” demographic district blue, and is running against Alek Skarlatos, his 27-year-old Repubilcan opponent in the November election. DeFazio says that if elected for another term he will continue rebuilding the national infrastructure to be more climate friendly, work on police reform and protect government medicare.

First elected in 1986, DeFazio tells Eugene Weekly that his experience lends itself to getting the job done, explaining that it can be difficult for a freshman congressman in the minority party to introduce legislation. He adds that he doesn’t think it’s likely the house will flip to a Republican majority in November.

“A freshman in the minority can get virtually nothing done,” DeFazio says. “I’ve been there.” 

In January 2019, DeFazio was made the chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. And now, as a Democrat in the House majority, he sets his own agendas and picks the bills he wants passed. DeFazio’s most substantial contribution on the committee this year is the Moving Forward Act, which passed the house at the beginning of July. This act invests in transit, roads and harbors to create a climate-friendly, more modern infrastructure.

“I put forward a bill that deals with and will meaningfully deal with those needs and will rebuild with materials that are more climate friendly,” DeFazio says. He says resilience is also a factor and that it’s important to build structures that can better withstand extreme temperatures, hurricanes and flooding. Additionally, he’s looking to the future of electrified highway systems, citing Tesla’s semi-truck as showing that a highway system that’s good for the environment isn’t far off.

The bill will create engineering jobs and jobs with the manufacturing of high tech, DeFazio says.

“The multiplier effect of this will help us get out of the depression caused by COVID.” 

In light of the national uproar on police killings of Black people and conversations surrounding police reform and alternatives, DeFazio has also made multiple statements condemning the actions of police, but also protesters who are violent and destructive. 

The congressman wants to make it clear that he is pro police reform, but not pro defunding the police, which he says Skarlatos has used falsely against him. As a co-sponsor of the Justice in Policing Act, he says he wants to “increase the dramatic change” and to hold police more accountable.

“Part of that is to encourage community policing for the drug and mental health crisis,” he says. DeFazio put forward the Crisis And Help Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) Act in the House of Representatives. The bill would help reduce violence in mental health crisis responses and strengthen local mental health resources. It is based on Eugene’s CAHOOTS program that helps counsel or take people to service providers, mitigating the need for police in many situations. This bill was first introduced in the Senate by Oregon’s Sen. Ron Wyden.

A longtime proponent of saving the U.S. Postal Service, DeFazio has publicly spoken out about the importance of the institution as it struggles for funding months before the election. He recently passed legislation that gives the USPS more funding, and is including $25 billion in his infrastructure bill for the post office. The bill would buy a new fleet of electric delivery vehicles, which would cut repair costs and help the environment. 

“It’s not the postal business. It’s not the postal corporation. It’s the Postal Service,” he says. “It is absolutely critical.”

He alludes to the hypocrisy of President Donald Trump and Skarlatos both trying to say that universal mail-in voting is bad, but absentee voting is OK. DeFazio says that attacking vote-by-mail is attacking Oregon’s system. 

“Vote by mail is more secure than the other systems and is less voter repressed. And having a well-funded postal service that can deliver ballots on time is important, especially now with COVID,” DeFazio says.

DeFazio also criticizes his opponent, Skarlatos, for wanting to repeal the Affordable Care Act. DeFazio says that as congressman, he will never cut Medicare or Social Security and that he has stood up against those cuts before. 

“Have you heard of the VA or Medicaid?” DeFazio says in response to Skarlatos’ views. Skarlatos himself is a National Guard veteran. “Medicare is a government program, too. You think all these seniors should go and buy health insurance?”

Though he says he isn’t worried about the election, DeFazio says that a lot of people don’t realize that the district, which includes Eugene and Roseburg, isn’t mainly Republican or Democrat, but rather a mix — purple. He says that people might be shocked to know that the district might lean towards supporting Trump’s re-election. Skarlatos, he says, is just a guy that happened to get famous.

“It’s just by accident that he’s a national celebrity,” he says. “Now they’ve moved up my race to first tier because they think he is the guy who could do it,” he says of the Republican Party donors. DeFazio has raised about $1.9 million for his own campaign so far. ν