Stefan Hard / Staff Photo
Mark Donka of Hartford is the Republican candidate running against Rep. Peter Welch for Congress.
As a blue-collar cop trying to support a wife and two daughters, Mark Donka says he knows what it means to lose sleep over money.
“I know what it’s like to not be able to pay bills,” Donka says. “I still struggle.”
To the Vermonters whose votes he’s courting as he traverses the state in one of this year’s longest-shot bids for higher office, the 30-year police veteran is trying to use those hard knocks to his advantage.
“I’ve been there, and I know a lot of people in Vermont have been there,” Donka says. “And because I can relate, I think they know I’m in this because I want to help.”
The Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives is looking to unseat popular Democratic incumbent Peter Welch. The second-term congressman had nearly $1.3 million in the bank as of the last federal filing deadline. Donka, meanwhile, hadn’t even raised the $5,000 minimum needed to file a report.
“I’m not naïve,” Donka says. “I never thought I was going to throw Mark Donka’s name into the ring and everyone was going to flock to me.”
But concerns over the national deficit, and Congress’ seeming unwillingness to combat it, Donka says, compelled him to enter a race that almost no one but him thinks he has a prayer of winning.
“I’m basically scared of the direction our country’s going,” he says. “I think our country is in a lot of trouble, and it doesn’t seem like anyone wants to notice it.”
Donka’s lone political experience consists of a single term on the Quechee Select Board. But the 55-year-old Woodstock police officer — he previously was a cop for nearly 30 years in Hartford — says he wants to bring his small-government ethic to Washington, D.C.
“Our debt is totally out of control and nobody wants to talk about it,” he says. “And we can’t keep going into debt and not hit a brick wall.”
Donka says he aims to take a scalpel to the national budget, cutting wasteful spending wherever he finds it. Expenditures like the $1.5 million State Department grant to Vermont Law School to instruct Chinese students in environmental law, he says, are symptomatic of Washington excess.
Welch lauded the grant in a press release last month, saying it will “empower China’s citizens to participate in and use legal avenues to address local environmental issues.”
“But it’s not doing anything for Vermont, it’s not doing anything for the United States,” Donka says. “Is it helping the Vermont Law School? Well, sure. But that’s a private institution — why should it be getting that money?”
Donka lists welfare, Amtrak rail subsidies and unnecessary transportation infrastructure projects as other specific places he’d look for savings, but says “I don’t think anything can be totally taken off the table.”
Donka says he believes programs like Social Security and Medicare pose a particular threat to U.S. solvency. But his proposed remedy hardly comes from the pages of the Republican playbook.
“I’m not looking to cut benefits to people who paid into it, but right now people only pay Social Security tax on the first $110,000,” Donka says. “So let’s take the cap off. If you make $200,000 or $300,000 or $5 million, you continue to pay that tax. That will bring a huge influx of money into the system, and it’s not like the people paying it are going to miss it.”
On social issues, Donka hews closer to the Republican national platform.
“I am anti-abortion, and pro-life,” says Donka, noting that he believes the lone exception should be in cases of rape. “That’s just the way I was raised and what I believe in.”
Donka says he can’t afford to take a leave of absence from work, so he’s maintained a full-time schedule since his campaign began in April.
During those first couple months, Donka was still working the night shift.
“So I’d get out of work at 6 a.m., and go politicking somewhere after that,” Donka says. “I’d go home for a couple hours sleep, then head back to work, and start it all again.”
He’s since moved to the day shift.
“So now I get out at 2 in the afternoon and go wherever there’s people,” he says.
He says the experience has provided a lesson in perseverance.
“I’m living on small contributions people have been giving me, so that I can print up some palm cards and get a few lawn signs made up,” he says.
Paying for the gas needed to get his car from town to town, Donka says, is his own contribution to the cause.
“But at $4 a gallon it’s getting really steep,” Donka says. “It’s probably $150 a week, which is really starting to hurt.”
Donka says he’s hoping as more people learn about his candidacy, he’ll be able to piece together enough cash to keep his campaign going strong until Nov. 6.
Learn more about Donka’s candidacy by visiting his website at www.markdonkaforvt.com
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