"Politics is at least a way, I think, of trying to fight for what I believe in," Alek Skarlatos says

Alek Skarlatos
Alek Skarlatos
| Credit: Alek for Congress

Alek Skarlatos didn't know what was in store for his future the moment before he and two friends jolted into action to stop a gunman aboard a train to Paris in 2015.

An Oregon National Guardsman who had just served in Afghanistan, Skarlatos couldn't have predicted the international headlines grabbed by the group's quick action — or the medals received in thanks (or the invitation to compete on Dancing with the Stars).

Looking back at what he was thinking in 2015, of where his life would take him, Skarlatos tells PEOPLE, "I really hadn’t made up my mind yet."

Then he and friends Spencer Stone, a U.S airman, and Anthony Sadler helped thwart the train attack.  Everything changed.

Five years later, Skarlatos has launched a 2020 political run, vying to represent Oregon's 4th Congressional District in a race against 33-year incumbent, Rep. Peter DeFazio.

"With everything that’s happened in my life, I feel like I really just kind of had an opportunity that a lot of people don’t get in their lives and I don’t necessarily want to waste it," says Skarlatos, 27.

"Politics is at least a way, I think, of trying to fight for what I believe in," he continues, "and fight for the place where I’m from and hopefully trying to better people’s situations.”

He set his sights on the Capitol after years of delivering public speeches and a brief brush with showbusiness: appearing as himself in the Clint Eastwood film The 15:17 to Paris, alongside Sadler and Stone, and finishing third on DWTS in 2015.

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From left: Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler photographed for PEOPLE in 2018.
| Credit: Jim Wright

Skarlatos is a self-described libertarian who supports a Donald Trump-aligned agenda, although he hesitates to align himself with Trump's divisive style.

"I don’t think of myself as necessarily a Trump Republican," he says, adding that, despite that, he believes the president has been a "net gain" for the country.

Skarlatos says he wants to represent “the loggers, the veterans, moms, dads and families trying to make ends meet" in the state's southwestern district, while working against what he calls "extremes" in Washington, D.C. (In recent weeks, he's ramped up political attacks against Democratic lawmakers as the election grows closer.)

DeFazio's re-election campaign has dismissed Skarlatos' statements as "nothing more than scripted talking points" and has called his political agenda "extreme."

Skarlatos, in turn, has accused his veteran opponent of letting the Oregon timber industry wither, resulting in what he says are "social and economic consequences that have come about due to purely political decisions."

(Local radio station KLCC reports that the state's timber industry has continued to decline under Trump. DeFazio's campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Skarlatos' statements.)

"It really frankly just pisses me off," Skarlatos tells PEOPLE, blaming the decline on the 73-year-old DeFazio. "I wanted to do something about it."

After falling short in a local race to become Douglas County commissioner in 2018, Skarlatos said it took convincing from Oregon state Sen. Dallas Heard during a plane trip to D.C. before he considered running for office again.

"He encouraged me to look at politics as a way to continue to fight for what we believe in and create positive change," Skarlatos says. "I basically just blew him off, because who wants to get into politics these days? Let’s be honest."

But he says Heard was persistent.

"We stayed in touch," Skarlatos says. "He sent me a lot of news articles and economic studies on the area and the more I learned, the angrier I got and I wanted to do something about it. I think that would be the single biggest decision in me running.”

Alek Skarlatos Dancing with the Stars
Alek Skarlatos competing on Dancing with the Stars
| Credit: Adam Taylor/Walt Disney Television via Getty

Boosting the local district's economy is the congressional challenger's "No. 1" objective, if he's elected on Nov. 3, he says.

He lines up with other conservatives on issues from immigration, to healthcare, to gun rights.

He denounced the killing of George Floyd in police custody, though he sided with President Trump's call to send federal law enforcement into local communities to squash the demonstrations that have at times turned violent, according to KLCC.

But the congressional candidate — who won the district's Republican primary with 86 percent of the vote — says he represents a new generation of hopeful GOP lawmakers, who he believes run on "common sense" issues that he thinks can attract voters from both sides of the aisle.

"Nobody really has a positive view of politics these days," Skarlatos says. "Maybe if we get enough good people in politics that want to actually change the system and move us forward in a positive direction, then we can actually create positive change in this country, whether Republican, Democrat or independent.”