WASHINGTON — It started, as these things often do, with a few asides to Rep. Warren Davidson, a Troy Republican who represents one of the most conservative congressional districts in the state.
Frustrated by the standoff over the proposed U.S.–Mexico border wall, constituents would sidle up to him and tell him that they wish they could donate to help build the wall.
They couldn’t, though. Were those constituents to cut a check to the U.S. Treasury, it would go to the general fund. You can’t earmark a check to your pet programs generally, Davidson said. If that were the case, billionaires would swoop in and pay for all sorts of wacky stuff.
But the wall, he figured, was different. So shortly after Thanksgiving last year, he introduced a bill, "Buy a Brick, Build a Wall," that allowed people to cut checks to the Treasury that could go directly to building the wall. He reintroduced the bill at the beginning of this Congress.
"I view it as a compromise," he said. "Where, you know, volunteerism is better for a lot of people than compulsion. Some people might find it as a reasonable thing."
It would’ve been a lark, an interesting idea that likely went nowhere. But then Brian Kolfage entered the picture.
Kolfage is an Air Force veteran who went to Iraq in 2003. On Sept. 11, 2004, his airbase in Balad Iraq, was attacked. During the rocket attack, Brian lost both his legs and his right arm, excruciatingly, remaining conscious the entire time.
Back in Florida after the war, Kolfage, now 34, threw his energy behind a new issue: He started a GoFundMe page asking for donations to build a wall. As of Thursday morning, 345,772 people had raised $20.6 million since the site’s launch Dec. 16 — one of the largest crowdfunding experiments in the history of GoFundMe.
"The reason I did it was that I was just sick of the way things were being handled in Washington," Kolfage said. "It seemed like no one was talking about the wall."
After the site took off, Kolfage took a call from Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, who mentioned Davidson’s bill and suggested he and Davidson meet. Within a few hours Kolfage and Davidson were on the phone, and not long after that, they met on Capitol Hill.
Their thought: They would send the money raised through the GoFundMe to the U.S. Treasury were Davidson’s measure to pass.
But passing the bill is perhaps the longest of long shots. The House, now held by Democrats, isn’t likely to take up Davidson’s bill. He said he’s hopeful that perhaps the Senate might tuck it into a larger bill and pass it. But as of Thursday, no senator had formally introduced a Senate companion bill, though Davidson said he’s been quietly talking to senators about the issue.
Kolfage said he’s prepared for that. He’s formed a 501c4 nonprofit, met with construction experts and mapped out a plan on building the wall privately if Congress doesn’t approve it. He said they’re prepared to build sections of the wall on private property across the southern border — only if the property owner wants them to do so — in order to "show the government people want the wall, and we’re not going to sit back." If Davidson’s bill passes, however, he’d go the government route.
Kolfage has given donors on the GoFundMe site the option of receiving a refund if their efforts don’t hit $1 billion within 90 days. But donors who have given who don’t want their money refunded, he said, should go back to the site and choose the "opt in" option to ensure that the donation is not refunded and goes toward an effort to build the wall.
Back in 2016, Davidson was initially cool to Trump’s campaigning on the wall. Trump, he said, "campaigned on, like, a Great Wall of China," an idea Davidson found impractical given the 1,954 miles of border.
But Davidson said that’s not what Trump is talking about today.
"It’s really just 10 tactically chosen areas," he said, with Trump wanting to erect additional borders in high-traffic areas, 234 miles of fencing in all.
He compares it to the Washington Monument. After a 5.8–magnitude quake damaged the monument in 2011, a billionaire stepped in and donated half of the $15 million needed to pay for the repairs. Congress allocated the other half. There is a precedent, Davidson said.
His office is getting plenty of calls about the shutdown. But he says constituents are urging him to build the wall to end it, not to cave to Democrats.
"When we look analytically at our calls, it’s overwhelmingly build the wall, build the wall," he said.