WHITE RIVER JUNCTION (AP) -- It’s a longshot, but Republican Mark Donka, a career police officer with little experience in politics, believes he has a chance to beat three-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Peter Welch.
What made him decide to run, besides a nudge from some fellow Republicans?
The growing federal debt.
"We’re heading toward a collision course of disaster if we don’t do something," said the 55-year-old Donka, of Hartford, a married father of two grown children who has juggled campaigning with his full-time job as a Woodstock police officer.
"Everybody can point fingers and blame everybody, and it’s the war, the unfunded wars, it was this, it was that. There’s no doubt that these are the causes of the thing. Let’s look for a solution," he said.
If elected to Vermont’s lone seat in Congress, Donka said, he would introduce a bill to set up a nonpartisan commission that would go through the budget line by line looking for cuts from duplication and waste. Seventy-five percent of the recommended cuts would have to be enacted, he said.
Donka says the debt doesn’t seem to be a priority for Welch but Welch, a Democrat, would strongly disagree.
For his part, Welch has been part of a budget group focused on "putting everything on the table" to make a big dent in the debt and was the leader on a letter signed by 100 House members calling for $4 trillion
In one of his few newspaper ads, Donka criticized Welch for supporting a $1.5 million U.S. State Department grant to the Vermont Law School that the school says will support a project designed to improve environmental and public health in China.
"One and a half million United State dollars are headed to communist China thanks to Peter Welch," the ad says.
The money could have been better used for fuel assistance, education, public safety, or bridge and road repair in Vermont, he said in the ad.
"What is that doing for state of Vermont? What’s that doing for the country?" Donka said in an interview.
Welch said the ad "is a gross distortion of the facts."
The competitive grant was awarded to the Vermont Law School in South Royalton and not China, he said.
Donka also said by doing away with waste and duplication in the federal budget, he could find money to help rebuild the state office complex in Waterbury that was flooded by Tropical Storm Irene last year. The state is still trying to determine how much of the work can be reimbursed by FEMA.
As a longtime police officer -- Donka worked for the Hartford police department for 18 years and in Springfield and Windsor before that -- he says he has a knack for talking to people that would be an asset in Congress, whether it’s to persuade a barricaded person to come out a home or to negotiate a police contract with the town manager.
"You have to be able to convince them that this is in their best interest," he said.
Also running are Independent James "Sam" Desrochers, Andre Laframboise from the VoteKISS party, and Liberty Union candidate Jane Newton.
He kicked off his campaign in April after members of the state Republican party approached him to run against Welch, he said. He had served one term on the town select board and made sure they knew that he didn’t have any money, he said.
He’s raised just over $5,000 to date, compared with Welch’s $928,854 as of Oct. 17, and takes issue with his opponent’s support from outside Vermont.
Donka has gotten help from the state Republican party, whose leader admits that Donka’s chances to win are "the longest of shots," and from his campaign manager, Keith Sterns, who ran in the Republican primary two years ago to challenge Welch but lost.
Donka spent his own money traveling the state. He’s put an estimated 7,000 miles on his vehicle in the past two months. He works at least 40 hours a week as a police officer and campaigns for another 45 hours, working in television, radio and newspaper interviews before work and attending state fairs and rotary clubs.
He jokes that he doesn’t recommend working full-time and campaigning. From what he’s hearing from people, in emails and in person, he has support and they’re ready for someone new in office, whom he said will be the voice of the middle class.
This is just the start for Donka.
If he loses, he plans to run for Congress again, starting his campaign the day after the election.
"I’m not going away," he said.