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News / Politics

Harry Dunn, former Capitol Police officer running for Congress, isn’t done yet

By Jim Saksa, CQ-Roll Call
Published: February 11, 2024, 6:02am

WASHINGTON — Standing at 6-foot-7, Harry Dunn is used to towering over the crowd. His imposing size served him well during his 15 years on the Capitol Police force.

“He’s quite the presence,” said Melissa Marshall, a former Capitol Police officer who worked alongside him.

Now he’s hoping to stand out again. Dunn instantly had a leg up when he decided to run for Congress, thanks to the national profile he built after defending the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He wrote a book about what he went through that day, like rioters hurling racial slurs at him, and has spoken out forcefully against Republicans who try to downplay the violence.

But the field in Maryland’s 3rd District primary is especially packed, with more than a dozen other Democrats competing for the open seat. The race had already attracted a number of strong candidates, including two state senators and three state delegates, when Dunn tossed his police cap into the ring in January, and a win for him is hardly guaranteed.

As they vie to replace retiring Rep. John Sarbanes in a solidly Democratic district, the candidates are dealing with a spike of interest in the race — and a test of how potent Dunn’s message about protecting democracy can be.

“When I saw Harry Dunn getting in … I said, ‘Oh, boy that’s gonna throw monkey wrench in the whole thing,’” said Corynne Courpas, chair of the Carroll County Democratic Central Committee. “It’s definitely going to be a crapshoot.”

While Courpas lives in the neighboring 2nd District, she’s watching the race closely: the 3rd District includes a chunk of Carroll County, plus all of Howard County and about half of Anne Arundel County. It’s a swath of suburbia located between Baltimore and D.C. that’s populated by mostly wealthy, educated voters who have become reliable Democrats in recent years as much in reaction to the GOP’s increasingly authoritarian bent under Donald Trump’s control as anything their own party has done.

Dunn hopes these voters will agree with him that the most important issue heading into the 2024 elections isn’t something as pedestrian as transportation funding or quotidian as the economy, but instead is the existential threat from the GOP’s MAGA wing. It’s a danger he quite literally fought on Jan. 6, which makes him uniquely qualified to continue fighting in Congress.

In his campaign launch video, actors recreate the mayhem that enveloped the Capitol’s corridors that day as Dunn calmly walks toward the camera, explaining why he’s running for office. “Some of the same people who stood behind us when we protected them, went back on the floor of Congress and stood behind Trump,” he says in the video, which has been viewed 6.3 million times on X.

In his book and in congressional testimony, Dunn described the flood of racist vitriol he faced on Jan. 6, being called the n-word repeatedly by rioters emblazoned in MAGA-wear.

Dunn said he’d long thought about running for office, thinking he would semi-retire and pursue a political career. But when he saw Sarbanes’ announcement, he decided to act, even though that meant leaving the force before he qualified for his pension. “I don’t believe that we have the luxury of sitting around and waiting to see what the next election cycle will bring us,” he said, pointing to Trump’s dominance in the GOP presidential primaries despite his repetition of disproven claims about the 2020 election.

“Individuals in Congress are parroting those lies. Not just talking points — those blatant, disproven lies,” Dunn said. “We need individuals that will fight back against them.”

Considerate Dunn

During his time on the Hill, Dunn was known as much for his warmth as his stature.

He made friends in both parties as he played in the annual charity football game that pits Capitol Police against members of Congress, drawing on his days as a college lineman.

One of those members was then-Rep. Rodney Davis, who remembers embracing Dunn in the hours after the Jan. 6 attack, once the Capitol had been secured.

“I walked into the Rotunda, and I looked to my left and I see big Harry Dunn, just sitting on a bench, exhausted,” the Illinois Republican said in a 2021 interview. “When I gave him a hug, he was all worried, ‘You know I got tear gas residue on me.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t care.’”

Dunn shared his own raw memories in testimony he gave in 2021 before the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack.

“I sat down on the bench in the Rotunda with a friend of mine who was also a Black Capitol Police officer, and told him about the racial slurs I endured,” Dunn testified. “I became very emotional, and began yelling, ‘How the blank could something like this happen? Is this America?’”

Those close to Dunn describe him as a gentle, thoughtful giant.

“You haven’t lived until you’ve been hugged by Harry Dunn,” said Gladys Sicknick. She came to know Dunn after the attack; her son, Brian, collapsed after responding on Jan. 6. The Capitol Police officer suffered two strokes the following day and died.

With Dunn at her side, Sicknick later came to the Capitol to lobby Senate Republicans for an independent, 9/11-style commission to investigate the insurrection. She praised Dunn as a comforting presence and keen listener. “He makes you feel good. He makes you feel like you count for something,” said Sicknick, who lamented she couldn’t say the same about many of the lawmakers she met.

“The main thing is he wants to make things just better for people,” said Marshall, who left the force after Jan. 6. She recalled how, as the rioters started to recede but with bedlam still enveloping the Capitol, Dunn had the presence of mind to think about others. “He just said, in the middle of all this chaos, ‘Guys, make sure you reach out to your family if you haven’t already and just let them know that you’re doing OK,’” Marshall said.

The question for Dunn’s campaign is whether he can impress voters with his empathy in the few months that remain before the May 14 primary. Sicknick and Marshall both don’t live in the district. Neither does Dunn, for that matter, but Sarbanes also hasn’t lived in the 3rd since the redistricting adopted before the 2022 election. A Prince George’s County native, Dunn has promised to move to the district if elected.

‘Democracy first’

There’s little chance Dunn will be able to talk one-on-one, let alone bear hug, with every Democratic primary voter. Instead, his campaign strategy will rely more on his ability to build on the media attention and fundraise from legions of fiercely anti-Trump Democrats across the nation.

Before Dunn entered, the primary was shaping up to be the far more common kind of local popularity contest. Howard County’s state Sen. Clarence Lam and Del. Terri Hill both announced bids. Out of Anne Arundel County, state Sen. Sarah Elfreth jumped in the race, along with Dels. Mike Rogers and Mark Chang. On top of that, some entrepreneurs, attorneys, and medical professionals have declared. The state filing deadline to get on the ballot is Feb. 9.

With those candidates likely splitting their own counties’ votes, local political observers think Dunn’s ability to get free media could make up for him not living in the district and entering the race relatively late.

“That is kind of the elephant in the room. He came in a little bit later compared to the other folks, but he does have a prolific national profile,” said a member of the Howard County Democratic Central Committee, who requested anonymity to speak frankly.

Pointing to their strong fundraising numbers and some local endorsements — which may matter more with the diehard partisans who tend to vote in primaries — that Howard County insider said Elfreth and Lam, the state senators, were likely the frontrunners before Dunn joined. The next campaign finance reports aren’t due until April 15, and with a field this big, it’s anyone’s race, he said.

While Dunn is focusing on Jan. 6, his leading opponents are pointing to their experience. “Folks are really interested in having somebody who has experience legislating and experience representing a part of the community,” Elfreth told Roll Call in a short interview, pointing to flooding, gun violence, abortion and labor rights as the issues that matter most to voters.

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“I’ve sponsored and helped pass legislation that capped prescription drug prices, banned pesticides, prohibited schools from shaming kids who can’t afford lunch, repealed outdated discriminatory LGBTQ laws, and helped support small and minority businesses owners who want to open businesses in Maryland,” Lam said in a text that noted his nine-year tenure in Annapolis.

As well known on the Hill as Dunn is, he has his detractors. Annoyed with what he saw as an anemic response to the Jan. 6 attacks, Dunn ran against the sitting union leader, Gus Papathanasiou, in 2021. He fell short. “Honestly, I didn’t put much effort into it,” Dunn said. “It was more of a statement to let the union’s current leadership know that I wasn’t pleased with the way things were.”

Reached by text, Papathanasiou had his own statement for his former coworker.

“I’ll stay out of the politics, but uscp and our union are better off now that Harry Dunn has left this agency,” Papathanasiou wrote.

When asked why he felt that way, Papathanasiou replied, “That’s how a lot of our officers feel that we talk to, on this department and cops outside our department.”

Dunn’s campaign declined to respond to Papathanasiou’s comments. But in an earlier interview, he pushed back against the notion that he’s doing all this — not just running for Congress, but the cable news interviews, the book, the union run, all of it — because he loves the limelight.

“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said. “I don’t think that anybody wants the attention that comes with fighting back against Donald Trump and his subordinates in Congress. I’ve gotten death threats.”

Instead, Dunn said, fame-seeking lawmakers are the real problem with Washington today. “They are career politicians, but I’m a career public servant,” he said. “And I’ve always shown that. Even [with] members of Congress who have been instrumental in spreading those lies about Jan. 6 — about the election, about everything that’s going on in the country — I was still able to protect them, even though I not only disagreed with them, but I knew that they were lying.”

“I’ve been able to protect them and put democracy first,” Dunn said.