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News / Politics

Harry Dunn brings ‘searing’ Jan. 6 memories to contentious Maryland US House race

By Jeff Barker, The Baltimore Sun
Published: May 11, 2024, 12:14pm
3 Photos
Harry Dunn was a Capitol Police officer during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Now he is running for Maryland&rsquo;s 3rd Congressional District seat.
Harry Dunn was a Capitol Police officer during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Now he is running for Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District seat. (Jerry Jackson/Staff) Photo Gallery

BALTIMORE — Harry Dunn had a moment — between the madness of Jan. 6, 2021, and the swearing-in of President Joe Biden two weeks later — in which something crystallized.

The U.S. Capitol Police officer was on duty at the building’s West Front, which commands a picture-postcard view from on high of the National Mall with the Washington Monument in the distance.

Days earlier, a rifle-wielding Dunn — now a candidate in a contentious U.S. House race to succeed retiring Maryland Democrat John Sarbanes — grappled with supporters of former President Donald Trump who had stormed the building seeking unsuccessfully to block Congress from finalizing the vote count declaring Biden, a Democrat, the winner of the 2020 election.

“I’d be a liar if I didn’t say I lost faith in humanity,” Dunn, 40, said in an interview in which he described being called racial epithets by Jan. 6 rioters. “Is this America? We have to acknowledge that. But we are better than that.”

As the Jan. 20 swearing-in approached, Dunn was back at his post. But now the shards of glass and other debris were gone, and he was looking in the late-afternoon darkness at the inauguration platform the rioters had scaled, and the Mall view he had photographed countless times because he couldn’t get enough of its majesty.

“I just remember looking at it once it got all cleaned up. And they had the flags hanging from the Capitol — the American flags. And it’s like, ‘Wow.’ It just reinforced that the bad guys lost.”

Three years later, Dunn is competing in the 3rd Congressional District primary in a broad field that includes two state senators and three delegates who have legislative experience that he lacks, absent his compelling personal story.

“We are at a moment where we need defenders of democracy — literally and figuratively speaking— and he’s done both,” U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat who has endorsed Dunn, said in an interview.

Dunn — a 6-foot-7 former James Madison University offensive lineman — has generated media attention and campaign contributions through his Jan. 6 accounts described in emotional testimony to a House committee in 2021 and a memoir last year called “Standing my Ground.” His campaign reported raising $4.6 million through April 24, according to his Federal Election Commission report.

State Sen. Sarah Elfreth, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, has raised $1.5 million, the second-highest total in the race, which includes 22 Democratic candidates.

Eleven of the Democrats have raised at least $100,000, and the campaign’s sharp give-and-take in the days before the May 14 primary suggests there is no clear favorite. Dunn has criticized a super PAC’s extensive support of Elfreth and said her Senate voting record has leaned too Republican. Meanwhile, Senate President Bill Ferguson has criticized Dunn for an attack ad on Elfreth that Ferguson calls “patently misleading.”

Dunn grew up in Prince George’s County and now lives outside the 3rd District in Silver Spring in Montgomery County. The district is split between Howard and Anne Arundel counties, with a piece of Carroll County as well.

It is not a requirement that a U.S. House member live in the district they represent, and Dunn said he looks forward to moving to the district, though he did not specify when.

The son of an Air Force veteran, Dunn joined the Capitol Police in 2008.

In 2012, he was suspended for four days because of a broken lock on the box in which he stored his service weapon, he said in a statement in response to Baltimore Sun questions.

An internal Capitol Police report in 2012 obtained by Punchbowl News referenced “an off-duty altercation with his wife, Denyel” in November 2011. His campaign doesn’t dispute that there was a heated argument, but Dunn and his now ex-wife said in a statement to The Sun: “At no point were we physically violent toward each other or our family.”

The Capitol Police declined to release the report, saying it was private. No charges were filed.

In 2017, Dunn was named a “field training officer,” training rookies on the force, according to the campaign. In November 2021, he lost a bid to unseat the incumbent of the Capitol Police union.

He remains a popular figure in the Capitol complex.

“He’s kind of like the mayor of Capitol Hill,” Swalwell said.

On a recent one-hour Capitol visit, Dunn, who left the force last year after 15 years, was warmly greeted by more than a dozen former police colleagues, lawmakers and Capitol staff.

Some shook his hand, high-fived him, or asked for selfies, while others — such as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom he ran into unexpectedly — hugged him. Pelosi endorsed Dunn last month.

“I’ll pray for you,” a woman who knew Dunn said as he walked past.

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“Thank you, I appreciate it,” he replied.

During his visit, Dunn displayed an intimate knowledge of the Capitol complex, pointing out unmarked rooms such as the “hideaway” that once belonged to Hillary Clinton when the former first lady was a New York senator. Hideaways are dormitory-sized rooms assigned to senators so they can work privately without walking back to their offices.

Dunn returned to the building’s Lower West Terrace, where he said he has “searing memories.” He encountered pushing and shoving on Jan. 6 and saw colleagues bloodied or doused with pepper or bear spray. He said he was threatened less than others because he had a rifle and “maybe because of my size.”

“You know how we get numb to things and we normalize them? We can’t do that,” he said of a day for which he required multiple counseling sessions for the “persistent emotional trauma.”

While Dunn has raised significantly more than the other candidates, Elfreth has benefited from independent spending on her behalf by the United Democracy Project, a pro-Israel super PAC affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. The organization has spent more than $4 million in support of Elfreth, according to Open Secrets, a nonprofit that researches campaign financing.

On Wednesday, Dunn released a TV ad saying Elfreth, 35, is “getting millions of dollars in ads paid for by a right-wing super PAC funded by Trump donors.”

The United Democracy Project’s donors include Bernard Marcus, a prominent supporter of former Trump and other GOP candidates, and Jan Koum, who was a supporter of former Republican South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s presidential campaign.

The ad displays separate images of Elfreth and Trump and says she has voted dozens of times with Republicans. It closes with a voiceover saying: “Trump donors made their choice for Congress. Who’s yours?”

Outside groups such as the United Democracy Project advertise for or against candidates without their authorization, and Elfreth has said the PAC’s support was a surprise.

Martha McKenna, Elfreth’s media consultant and adviser, said in response: “Sarah’s been endorsed by the Maryland firefighters, teachers, environmentalists and elected leaders from across the three counties because of her outstanding bipartisan record in the General Assembly over the last six years fighting for jobs, affordable child care and abortion rights.”

State Senate President Bill Ferguson told The Sun that he considers Dunn’s ad “patently misleading.” Ferguson has not endorsed a candidate in the race but said the ad “just proved to me that doing this type of tactic to win a race is a sign of someone’s likely ineffectiveness in Congress.”

Asked about Ferguson’s criticism, Dunn campaign manager Taylor Doggett released a statement reiterating the ad’s theme that “MAGA extremists” are “looking for allies everywhere that they can” and that Elfreth made votes “in which she stood against the Democratic Senate President and the overwhelming majority of Democrats in Annapolis.”

The Democratic field also includes state Sen. Clarence Lam and Del. Terri Hill, both from Howard County, Dels. Mike Rogers and Mark Chang, who are from Anne Arundel County, and Juan Dominguez, an Anne Arundel County businessman and Gulf War veteran. Nine Republicans have also filed in the race, though their funding totals fall short of those of their Democratic counterparts.

Beyond his theme of defending democracy, Dunn said he is aligned with common Democratic Party priorities, including “common sense gun reform, the protection of women’s reproductive health, securing voting rights and lowering health care costs.” If elected, Dunn said he also was interested in working on improving Maryland’s infrastructure issues and on bills to increase mental health services and reduce the stigma associated with them.

But he is best known for Jan. 6.

A highly produced two-minute campaign launch video he released depicts a dramatic reenactment of the Jan. 6 riots. In the scene, rioters appear to ransack a hallway as Dunn walks calmly through them and talks to the camera about the threat of “bigots” in Congress who it was his duty to protect but who then “denied the violence and trauma that led to the death of some of my fellow officers.”

He says serving in Congress would give him a seat at the table and a voice, particularly in the conversation about protecting democracy, after spending years working to create a “safe space” for such discussions on Capitol Hill.