Harry Dunn Fought Rioters on Jan. 6. Now He Wants to Go to Congress

Harry Dunn stands in the living room of a waterfront home in Annapolis, Maryland, in a black campaign T-shirt and a silver chain. His forehead glistens with sweat as he paces the bright space, all eyes in the room on him.

The image people have seared into their minds of Dunn is him in a crisp, dark Capitol Police uniform, gold badge over his heart, giving an emotional testimony in front of the Jan. 6 congressional committee. He recalled the blood that covered his fist after he fought rioters hoping to keep Donald Trump in office, and how he had to go to therapy to deal with the trauma that still lingers from the day.

Three years later, Dunn’s DMs are still filled with racist death threats — messages calling him an n-word who deserved to die that day, and accusing him of lying about what happened at the Capitol.

Standing in front of the fireplace on this windy April afternoon, Dunn reminds the room that Jan. 6 did happen. He talks about that day a lot in front of people and in TV interviews — the insurrection is why he’s running for Congress today, why he’s here trying to convince this room he’s the right man for the job.

Dunn talks about protecting voting rights, women’s reproductive rights, and affordable health care and housing, and then veers, as most of his speeches do, toward Trump. He says that if anyone here is afraid of the prospect of the former president regaining the White House, he wants to give you a hug. The towering six-foot-seven-inch, 325-pound man is known by some supporters and friends as “Teddy Bae” — and he is a hugger.

“Hugs make people feel better. I like the opportunity to comfort people,” Dunn, 40, tells the group. “So, when somebody says, ‘I’m really scared about our future,’ I’m like, ‘It’s not going to be OK. You should be scared.’ I wish I had something reaffirming to say. But I don’t.

“It’s not fearmongering. It’s actually real.

DUNN IS RUNNING AS A DEMOCRAT to fill the U.S. House seat in Maryland’s heavily Democratic 3rd Congressional District, hoping to become just the second Capitol Police officer ever elected to Congress. Dunn, who is among the front-runners in the crowded field of 22 Democrats seeking to replace departing Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes, has already proven to be a formidable fundraiser ahead of the May 14 primary: His campaign reported this month raising more than $3.75 million since Dunn announced his candidacy in early January, a staggering haul that dwarfs his competitors’ war chest.

The college football player turned Capitol Police officer has emerged as an unlikely public figure since his Jan. 6 testimony — a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Citizens Medal, a New York Times bestselling author for his 2023 memoir, Standing My Ground, and someone who liberals want to shake hands with and thank when they see him in public.

“Those two words — Harry Dunn – are revered among my staff,” former Speaker Nancy Pelosi says in a phone interview, recounting the officer’s role in protecting her staffers during the riot. “They were scared to death, and the alleviation of that pain was Harry Dunn.”

His campaign features a platform focused on reproductive rights, affordable health care, and the importance of democracy, using a healthy amount of imagery and references to the Capitol attack in its ads. It’s expected to be a litmus test as to whether Jan. 6 remains a main motivating factor at the polls for Democrats opposing Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, and Republicans loyal to him.

U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Harry Dunn, who defended the Capitol when pro-Trump insurrectionists attacked Jan. 6, 2021, keeps watch over the East Plaza while Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other lawmakers hold an event on the House steps, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, June 24, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Harry Dunn keeping watch over the East Plaza while then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers hold an event on the House steps on June 24, 2022.

“He could have just buried that day and never relived it, but he did the exact opposite,” says California Rep. Eric Swalwell. “For the sake of democracy, he relives it almost every day to make sure that we actually physically never have to relive it.”

Questions remain whether Dunn’s lack of experience and we-must-protect-democracy-at-all-costs message will translate at the polls. Dunn, who was with Capitol Police for 15 years before resigning in December, has faced criticism from old colleagues in law enforcement, Republicans, and conservative media, including Tucker Carlson, who have accused Dunn of being a far-left activist and a “self-serving show horse” who capitalized on Jan. 6 for his own gain and fame. It’s a critique Dunn rejects, cringing each time he gets called a “celebrity” — “I hate being called that” — even if the label could help get him back to the Capitol in a different job.

“Jan. 6 was my hell, and I’m sure a lot of other people’s hell,” he says. “In a heartbeat, I would give it all back if Jan. 6 wouldn’t have happened.”

AFTER WISHING THAT HE HAD WASHED one of the many campaign shirts that are in his laundry, Dunn begins his stretch of door-to-door canvassing and jokingly asks himself the same question he asks about a hundred times a day: What the fuck am I doing?

He never questions whether he should be running for Congress, but Dunn still grapples with the pressure of doing something with his newfound platform after his House testimony took him from regular dude to Democratic darling. He parks his black Ford F-150 truck (adorned with a Harry Dunn for Congress bumper sticker) on a residential street in Ellicott City, Md., and is met with a chorus of enthusiasm from those who answer their doors:

Are you the man who got beat up at the Capitol? 

I just wanted to thank you for what you did on the 6th.

I’ve seen you on TV. You can handle it all!

The reality is Dunn didn’t think he could handle much on the night of Jan. 6, 2021. When he got home from the worst day at work he’ll ever have, he got in the shower and took a swig from a bottle of Weller Antique 107. He cried and took more pulls from the bottle of bourbon, wondering what the hell had just happened. He was still processing being called the n-word for the first time after he told some of the insurrectionists that he voted for Joe Biden. He kept asking the same question to himself that he had yelled over and over in the rotunda hours before: Is this America?

“The shower felt good, and it also burned at the same time,” Dunn tells me during a recent steakhouse lunch across the street from the Capitol, remembering the bumps and bruises all over his body. “It was rough, and it just hit me all at once.”

The slur taunts will never be healed. Pelosi says the verbal denigration from trolls toward Dunn and others telling the truth about Jan. 6 is part of “the sickness of Donald Trump.”

“It’s very sad, but it’s not surprising,” she says.

Dunn pulls out his phone and shows me one screenshot he has kept in the past couple of years that an X user sent him of a racist caricature of a Black person’s brain with sections that include “KFC,” “Wite Hoes” and “Welfare.” “This is you, n—-r” the DM reads.

“I stopped paying attention to it, honestly,” Dunn says, “but it’s probably still there.”

His stress was noticeable to Janice Hampton, the youngest of his four sisters, when the siblings invited him over days after the insurrection. It took him time, but Dunn tapped into what he and his sisters had learned growing up in Maryland from their mother, Joyce, about taking care of their own mental health, Hampton tells me.

“When we asked him things, he didn’t want to talk about how he felt,” says Hampton, 39. “But after Jan. 6 happened, I saw him really tap into what we learned with our therapists growing up. I have watched him take a very traumatic experience and try to make the most out of it and grow from it.”

Aquilino Gonell has known Dunn since Dunn joined the Capitol Police as a rookie in 2008 — they’ve been colleagues and friends since then. Gonell was working at the Capitol on Jan. 6, as well, and he says he was hesitant to speak out until he saw what he describes as bravery from Dunn to talk to the media and testify in front of Congress.

“He was standing on an island by himself with no support whatsoever, and he motivated me to speak up,” says Gonell, 44, author of American Shield: The Immigrant Sergeant Who Defended Democracy. “People still see him as a polarizing person because he put himself out there and talked about the truth.”

Dunn admits it’s nice getting invited to cool parties now that people know him, but stresses that his time in the spotlight these past few years has not been glamorous. When he resigned from the Capitol Police last year, he walked away from his pension, and no longer has health insurance. Dunn says he was ordered by the Capitol Police to pay back $21,000 in retention bonus money he had taken.

Herbert Flores, a current Capitol Police officer who lives in the district, is in Annapolis to introduce his friend at the house party. Flores, who learned how to be a Capitol Police officer from Dunn, is still in awe of seeing his friend walk away from a stable life to pursue a second life of public service.

“This is rolling the dice in the ultimate sense,” says Flores, 31, who adds that he’s speaking for himself and not the Capitol Police. “He’s putting a lot on the line for this, but if he gets it, I think he can do some real good.”

AS HIS BALD HEAD IS NOW covered in beads of sweat after talking for almost an hour, a smiling Dunn jokes how he has no clue what he’s doing, or why he would want to be a member of the House right now.

“Who in their right mind would willfully go and join Congress?” he asks the amiable group of Democratic voters, saying that people have encouraged him to get drug-tested for wanting to be in Congress right now. “Have y’all seen it?!”

Washington, DC - July 21 : 

Washington Metropolitan Police Department officer Michael Fanone and U.S. Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn watch as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a primetime hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday, July 21, 2022 in Washington, DC. 

(Photo by Tom Brenner for the Washington Post)
Washington Metropolitan Police Department officer Michael Fanone and Dunn watching as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol holds a hearing.

Ultimately, Dunn later tells me, it comes down to a sense of obligation.

“Somebody has to do it,” Dunn says,  “and I believe it is worth fighting for. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I sat on the sidelines and just said, ‘Somebody else can do it.’”

It’s clear at this event that Dunn can work a room, repeatedly saying he’s the fighter needed to take on MAGA Republicans. He brags about outraising former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican running for the Senate, in the first quarter of this year. Dunn reminisces about how he and Michael Fanone, a D.C. police officer who responded to the violence on Jan. 6, went to the Capitol to confront the 21 House Republicans who voted against the Congressional Gold Medal resolution for the officers who protected the Capitol. Dunn treats the tale like an old war story.

“I got suspended for four days,” Dunn says of his day with Fanone, which gets the biggest laugh of the afternoon. “But I wear that one with a badge of honor.”

Even with his massive financial advantage and national outreach, it’s not a given that Dunn will be elected. There has not been extensive polling in the crowded Democratic primary race, but a February survey from RMG Research showed that no candidate had yet to receive 10 percent support from likely Democratic voters. Dunn polled at seven percent, coming in second behind the nine percent for Maryland state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, an experienced legislator, and perhaps his top competitor for the open seat, the survey shows.

There are also uncertainties about how Dunn’s campaign will resonate in Maryland. He has no previous political experience and lost a highly contentious race to lead the union for the Capitol Police officers in late 2021, after Dunn advocated for congressional action to establish an independent commission to investigate the insurrection. Gus Papathanasiou, the union leader who defeated him, has said that the Capitol Police was “better off now that Harry Dunn has left this agency.” Dunn, who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, does not live in the district that he wants to serve, but has vowed to move there. (Dunn just has to live in the state to run for Congress.)

“I know Harry has raised a boatload of money, more than all the campaigns put together in this race, but he lives in Montgomery County,” says Maryland state Del. Mike Rogers, a candidate for the open seat who finished right behind Dunn in the February survey. “The voters will have to make a decision about whether that’s important to them.”

Dunn has received mostly national endorsements for his campaign, including Democratic Reps. Pelosi, Swalwell, Adam Schiff (California) and James Clyburn (South Carolina), but has lacked widespread local endorsements compared with Elfreth.

Dunn’s personal life has also come under scrutiny after Punchbowl News reported that he was suspended from the Capitol Police in 2012 following a police investigation into a report of domestic violence involving him and his then-wife, Danyel. No charges were filed, but Capitol Police records show that they both had scratches on their arms from the altercation. Dunn was suspended without pay for improperly handling his department-issued gun during the incident, according to Capitol Police records. The couple released a statement in March acknowledging the incident, saying they “unfortunately sometimes argued, like a lot of newlyweds do,” with Danyel adding that Dunn “has always been a great and loving dad, and a peaceful person.”

“I learned from my mistake,” Dunn tells me, noting that he and his ex-wife remain friends as they co-parent their daughter about a decade after their divorce. (Danyel did not respond to an interview request.)

Dunn and his daughter years ago in the Capitol rotunda.
Dunn and his daughter years ago in the Capitol rotunda.

One of the most striking parts of Dunn’s memoir is how he took a FaceTime call from his daughter, Daphne, during the riot, talking to the then-nine-year-old with pepper spray in his eyes. They have never spoken about the day, and she doesn’t know the full extent of what her dad went through, Dunn says. He doesn’t dare mention to her the vile messages he gets on social media and email. She’s 12 now, and is more concerned with watching YouTube videos and eating pretzels with her father at the Saturday farmers market than talking about a day more than three years ago, Dunn says. But he thinks his daughter already kind of has an idea of what’s up when strangers walk up and ask for selfies.

“People will see her and say, ‘Your father, he is such a hero. You should be so proud,’” Dunn says. “And she’s like, ‘Ehh, he’s OK.’ I’m just Dad to her.”

Toward the end of the weekend, Dunn has taken selfies, raised some more money, and hugged more people than he can count. Walking to his truck, he talks about the pressure that has become clearer and more pronounced in the month before the primary.

“At first, I thought I would only be disappointing myself if I didn’t win,” he says, “but so many people are riding with me now that it’s like, ‘God, I can’t fail. I can’t fail.’”

When asked if he feels like he can take on the unexpected burden that’s come his way since Jan. 6, 2021, he smiles again and offers a slight shrug as more sweat drips off his head and onto his campaign T-shirt.

“I don’t have a choice.”

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