Alek Skarlatos (center)Photo courtesy Alek Skarlatos.

The Trumpster Fire Challenging DeFazio

Democrats say DeFazio’s Republican opponent is following in Trump’s footsteps — he’s racist and inexperienced

Alek Skarlatos is young, right wing and starred in a major Hollywood film. Now, he is running as the Republican candidate against Rep. Peter DeFazio in Oregon’s 4th Congressional District. During the critical third quarter of this year’s campaign, Skarlatos also out-fundraised the 33-year incumbent, according to Skarlatos’ team.

Skarlatos’ platform, which has gained support from high-level Trump associates, is centered on reviving the timber industry, defending Second Amendment gun rights and stopping “illegal” immigration.

“His appeal is 100 percent tied to Donald Trump. Some of it may be because he’s young and handsome. But none of that has to do with his credibility on any of the issues,” says Democratic Party of Lane County Chairman Chris Wig. “Skarlatos has no experience that relates to any kind of governance whatsoever.”

Skarlatos did not respond to Eugene Weekly’s attempts to contact him on four different platforms over a three-week period, even as the campaign season entered its final stretch following Labor Day Weekend. EW instead drew on his interviews with other sources, including right-wing groups.  

The 28-year-old Republican is best known for playing himself in Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris, based on his own experience stopping a terrorist attack in France. He also performed on Dancing with the Stars, where he finished third place and made headlines in People magazine and Bustle.

Skarlatos was born in Sacramento County, California, and moved to Roseburg as a teenager. Right after graduating from Roseburg High School, he enlisted in the Oregon Army National Guard and spent nine months in Afghanistan.

In 2018, he pivoted to politics and made an unsuccessful bid for Douglas County commissioner.

Despite this early political failure, Skarlatos is trying to give DeFazio a run for his money in the race to represent Oregon’s 4th, out-fundraising the veteran incumbent by $1.1 million in the third quarter alone, according to tweets from the Skarlatos campaign. He has raised more than $3.9 million during the 2020 election cycle, most of it in the past few months. 

Seventy-five percent of Skarlatos’ total donation amount is from out-of-state, according to receipts filed with the Federal Election Commission. And 64 percent of those individual donations are from outside Oregon. In comparison, 89 percent of DeFazio’s total donation amount comes from outside Oregon, but only 60 percent of individual donations to his campaign are from out-of-state. Overall, Skarlatos has fewer individual donations. 

“I think the important thing with Alek Skarlatos is that most of his money is coming from out of state,” says Douglas County Democratic Party official Alana Lenihan. “It’s not even residents of Douglas County or the state of Oregon.”

National Republican Party leaders have rallied behind Skarlatos to aid his bid for Congress. He has been endorsed by House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, and has financial support from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

McCarthy set up a joint fundraising committee that has brought in more than $69,000 for Skarlatos. Cruz has promised to help Skarlatos, among 25 other Republican House candidates, by raising $100,000 for each. 

Democrats warn the party is going to have to spend heavily in Oregon’s 4th to keep it blue. “It’s a close district,” Oregon state Sen. Lee Beyer says. “I think it’s probably a swing district.”

In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Trump in DeFazio’s district by 0.1 percent, or 554 votes.

The nonpartisan public opinion poll Rasmussen Report changed the district rating from “Safe Democratic” to “Likely Democratic” in July. That’s partly because the district’s two progressive college towns — Eugene in Lane County and Corvallis in Benton — sit between Curry, Linn, Josephine and Douglas counties, which are all majority Republican. The report warned that changes to the academic school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including remote learning, could affect the election results. 

Both the University of Oregon and Oregon State University’s fall classes are online, meaning many students are not in Eugene and Corvallis and might be less inclined to vote. With weeks before the election, pollsters still view the race as “Likely Democratic.”

Doyle Canning, the progressive candidate who challenged DeFazio in the Democratic primary, says Democrats can’t take the race lying down. “Nobody can sit this out. There is an urgency to not just defeating Trump, but every Republican down-ticket,” Canning says. “We need to send a message that the white nationalist criminal administration we’ve been enduring over the past four years can never happen again.”   

Skarlatos has aligned himself with the far-right wing of the GOP. He is endorsed by Sen. Tom Cotton R-Arkansas, Stephen Moore — who advised Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign — and Arthur Laffer. A controversial Reagan economist, Laffer is best known for the Laffer Curve, which has been used to support the theory of trickle-down economics and argues for lower taxes on the wealthy. Laffer’s trickle-down theory was the basis of such radical tax-cutting campaigns as California’s Prop. 13 and Oregon’s disastrous Measure 5. 

“I believe in lower taxes and lower regulation,” Skarlatos said in a candidates forum hosted by the City Club of Eugene on Oct. 15. His support for economic freedom made headlines in late May when he posted a picture of himself next to the owners of Casey’s Restaurant in Roseburg. Skarlatos visited the diner after it was fined $14,000 for reopening in violation of Gov. Kate Brown’s executive order during the first wave of COVID-19 infections. In the picture, Skarlatos stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the owners and gives the camera a thumbs up. No one is wearing a mask. 

Skarlatos’ unmasked appearance at the restaurant appears to reflect his emphasis on the economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis despite the major health concerns associated with the restaurant’s reopening. His health care policy also centers on market freedom. His campaign website states that the free market is the best way to improve healthcare quality and increase access to services.

Skarlatos does agree with restricting access to health care when it comes to abortion. He is endorsed by Oregon Right to Life. In the Oct. 15 candidates forum, Skarlatos said, “I do not believe in federal funding for Planned Parenthood.” 

“We are really excited about Alek’s campaign,” says —–Liberty Pike, spokesperson for Oregon Right to Life. “We ask our elected officials to stand up for the rights of the people they represent, and those include people in the womb that are not yet born.” She says they are confident Skarlatos will defend that position if he is elected.

“Skarlatos is not with Oregon women,” DeFazio said in an email to EW. 

Skarlatos also supports unlimited Second Amendment rights. “I just hate any gun law because I think it’s an infringement,” Skarlatos said in an interview with the owner of Basin and Tackle, a fishing store in Coos Bay. “Even President Trump passing the bump stock ban I think was a huge mistake.”

Bump stocks allow semi-automatic rifles to fire continuously with one pull of the trigger. In the 2017 Las Vegas shooting which killed 58 people — the deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history — 12 of the guns found in the shooter’s hotel room were rigged with bump stocks. The shooter was able to fire 1,000 rounds into the concert arena where the massacre took place.

On immigration, Skarlatos has taken aim at sanctuary cities, calling them “awful” in an interview with Your VoiceTM Campaign Corner, a Trump-devoted YouTube “news” channel. “Housing criminals, especially the worst kind — violent criminals — I mean it’s awful for the citizens that live in those cities,” Skarlatos said. He supports building Trump’s border wall to prevent undocumented migrants from crossing into the U.S. through the Southern border.

Canning says that Skarlatos’ immigration platform is “just a continuation of the white nationalist agenda of the Trump administration, and it’s out of step with Oregon values.”

Skarlatos’ response to the Black Lives Matter protests has also toed Trump’s party line. In a tweet from Aug. 10, Skarlatos called protesters “the mob.” He said, “The chaos we see is the result of failed leadership by elected officials who choose to placate and stand by rioters and looters instead of local businesses.” 

“Alek Skarlatos’ attitude towards the Black Lives Matter movement is a relic of Jim Crow,” says Lane County Democratic Party official Wig. “Skarlatos is racist.” The majority of Eugene and Springfield Black Lives Matter protests have been peaceful on the part of BLM protesters.

Local business, which Skarlatos cited in his tweets about BLM, has become a rallying call for his campaign because of his central focus on revamping the timber industry — the other BLM, the Bureau of Land Management.

“Southwestern Oregon relies on the timber industry, and since the timber industry went away it’s been really hard on people economically, you’ve got unemployment, homelessness,” Skarlatos said in an interview on the podcast Free Range American. “Everything has really gone downhill since timber left and I really want to bring it back, not really for the timber industry but just for the people of southwestern Oregon.”

He claims timber has been largely killed by environmental regulations and mismanagement of federal forests.

Douglas Democratic Party official Lenihan says Skarlatos’ narrow focus on timber has resulted in a one-note campaign. “He’s not taking a deep dive into any of the other issues that face this county related to poverty and jobs and the environment.”

Lenihan says forest fires in Douglas County make the air quality so bad that residents aren’t able to go outside in the summer. “It just happens every year,” Lenihan says. “He’s not addressing any of those issues. If he does address forest fires, it’s that we need to get in there and cut everything down so there’s nothing to burn.”

The 2020 fire season in Oregon is one of the deadliest on record. It forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes.

On Free Range American, Skarlatos discussed forest fire control. “Most people can look outside and realize that there are more forest fires every year in California and Oregon than there were in the past, and there’s got to be a reason for it,” Skarlatos said. “It’s probably not global warming, it’s probably the fact that we don’t manage our forests anymore and we don’t put out forest fires.”

Tim Ingalsbee, the executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology (FUSEE), says climate change and clearcutting largely account for the increased intensity of forest fires, not misconceived environmental protections. 

In the Basin and Tackle interview, Skarlatos outlined the kind of forest management he says Oreogn is missing, including salvage logging. “They’re not allowing them to cut these trees and sequester carbon and then plant new trees in their place to help the forest recover even ten years faster than if you just leave it and let it rot on its own.”

To Ingalsbee, Skarlatos’ suggestion that increased logging is environmentally savvy is wrong. “Skarlatos’ claim that boosting logging will reduce forest fires is really preposterous.”

“Basically his position isn’t really about how to deal with forest fire. It’s how to boost timber industry profits,” Ingalsbee says. “It’s not even about timber industry jobs either, because so much of the industry is automated.”

Ingalsbee says that if Skarlatos wanted to create forestry jobs, he would look into the potential for job creation in forest management, potentially as part of a Green New Deal. 

Skarlatos has criticized DeFazio’s co-sponsorship of the Green New Deal, calling it a “horrible bill” in his interview with Basin and Tackle. His lack of support for the GND goes hand-in-hand with his skepticism that climate change is largely caused by humans.

In an interview with E & E News, an online newspaper focused on energy and the environment, he said he believes in climate change, “but whether or not humans are doing enough to contribute to the cause of it, that’s still up for debate.”

Brett Steinacher, an educator who taught Skarlatos in a class called “Senior Health” at Roseburg High School, says he supports Skarlatos’ analysis of the environmental and economic stressors in Douglas County.

“He wants to represent southwestern Oregon and some of the great things that our region offers. And so I think timber is something that is a natural resource, it’s plentiful,” Steinacher says. “I think that’s a good platform to run on.”

Steinacher says he is pleased to see a young person getting involved in politics. 

“He’s got a lot to learn but knowing him as a student, he’s an individual who doesn’t have all the answers so he’s going to lean on the people that do and that information is going to help guide his decision making as hopefully a successful politician.”

Steinacher says Skarlatos’ youth could be an advantage against DeFazio, who is 73, and has represented Oregon’s 4th Congressional district for more than three decades.

State Sen. Beyer disagrees. He says DeFazio’s status as one of the top 10 senior members in the House means Oregon’s 4th Congressional District has a voice at the national level.

“In the 4th district we have somebody who is high up in the food chain and is bringing home the money and serving our interest very well,” he says. “You don’t trade that off for a benchwarmer.”