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Election 2024 Government & Politics

Live from Severna Park, it’s Harry Dunn

Congressional candidate Harry Dunn addresses a house party in Severna Park recently. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

Clair Dixon calls himself an MSNBC junkie.

And on a recent pleasant weekday evening, in Dixon’s well-appointed Severna Park home, stands a national hero who appears frequently on the liberal cable network, former U.S. Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn, who is now a candidate for Congress in Maryland’s 3rd District.

“You’ve got to watch out for Marjorie Taylor Greene,” Dixon advises Dunn as he introduces the candidate to the two dozen or so people assembled in the living room. “She’s a hottie.”

Dunn, who has an easy-going manner and has turned into an accomplished speaker since he became a public figure a few years ago, doesn’t miss a beat.

“She’s got to watch out for me,” he laughs.

At 6-foot-7, Dunn looms over everyone in the Dixon home in much the same way he is looming over the 3rd District Democratic primary. The 22-candidate primary has a flavor for everyone, and there are five state lawmakers in the race, with solid, serious records of legislative accomplishments. It was logical to assume, before Dunn entered the race in January to replace outgoing U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes (D), that the district’s next member of Congress would be one of those lawmakers.

But Dunn’s national celebrity after he fought insurrectionists at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, has brought in millions of dollars in campaign contributions, and several high-profile congressional Democrats are backing his campaign. Now, even though he doesn’t live in the 3rd District, and doesn’t have a history or many contacts there, as the more seasoned politicians do, he is undeniably one of the frontrunners — and may even be the leading candidate in the May 14 contest.

At times it seems as if Dunn is waging his campaign on the airwaves — either through the multiple ads he’s been airing, or through his regular appearances on cable chat shows.

On this evening, though, Dunn seems happy to be talking to the small crowd of the Dixons’ neighbors who live on a peninsula between the Severn River and Lake Liberty.

“I’m very thankful to have you here,” he tells the group, after reminding them to eat up, especially all the cheese that’s going untouched. “I don’t take it for granted at all.”

Dixon and his wife, Cathy Dixon, have held a couple of political events at their home through the years. They’re hosting Dunn at the suggestion of their son, Spencer, a political maven from the time he was a kid, who now works as legislative director to state Sen. Dawn Gile (D-Anne Arundel).

Gile, it must be noted, is supporting one of Dunn’s principal rivals in the primary, fellow Anne Arundel state Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth.

In an interview, Dunn says he’s enjoying house parties like these.

“It’s an opportunity to let people know that I’m more than Jan. 6,” he says.

Dunn speaks easily to the party guests before and after his formal remarks, sitting at one point on a kitchen stool, which essentially puts him at eye level with everybody else.

“My job is to listen and learn, and not just to say, ‘Hey, this is my agenda.'”

‘Jan. 6 doesn’t happen, I’m not standing before you’

By his own account, Harry Dunn is something of an accidental candidate.

“Jan. 6 doesn’t happen, I’m not standing before you today,” he tells the group in Severna Park. “I’m at work at the Capitol.”

Dunn, who is 40, notes that he quit his job in January to become a candidate four years before he was eligible for a full pension from his law enforcement job. When he broke the news to his mother, she was so incredulous that she addressed him sternly by his middle name.

“You did what, Anthony?” he recalls her saying.

The crowd laughs.

But Dunn continues with the story, recounting how his parents taught him the difference between right and wrong. A clear line can be drawn from the chaos of Jan. 6 to his candidacy, he believes.

“What happened that day is wrong, and I needed to speak out,” Dunn says. “I find it easy to speak out. The hard part would be not saying anything at all…What I did on Jan. 6, I did as a police officer. What I did on Jan. 7 and Jan. 8 and every day since, I did as an American citizen.”

Dunn has made the preservation of democracy, and routine condemnation of former President Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans, the centerpiece of his campaign.

“In this day and age, you don’t need a career politician,” he says. “You need a fighter. Democracy is facing a 9-1-1 call. And you need a first responder.”

That pitch is probably what most grabs voters.

“I’ve seen him on TV and he impressed the hell out of me,” says a neighbor of the Dixons named John who was at the house party. “We need strong people in Congress.”

John says he became interested in local politics through Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D), an unconventional politician who has defied expectations throughout his tenure and has railed against developers and the influence of big money in elections and policy debates.

“He’s captured all of the good we have in politics,” John says of Pittman.

Pittman is also backing Elfreth in the Democratic primary.

‘Israel is our ally and that’s what I’ll stand by’

Dunn is the first to admit that he’s not a policy expert, and that he’ll have a learning curve if he’s elected to Congress.

That’s pretty evident during the house party in Severna Park. When he’s speaking about democracy, or priorities that unite most Democrats, like abortion rights or economic inequality, Dunn appears animated and resolute if not altogether fluent. When he’s dissing Donald Trump and Trump’s compatriots, he’s especially colorful, noting that the ex-president “could suffocate from his own farts in a Manhattan courtroom” and the MAGA movement wouldn’t dissipate.

Dunn stumbles a little when discussing the war in Gaza and the student uprisings at college campuses. He complains about all the money that a political action committee funded by AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, is spending to help Elfreth.

“It should not cost money, millions and millions of dollars, to win an election,” Dunn says. He name-checks Sarbanes, a leading political reformer on Capitol Hill, and says, “I look forward to championing his legacy.”

But asked by Jake Burdett, a progressive activist from Howard County about Israel, Dunn says he wants more humanitarian aid for Gaza but also maintains he’ll be a strong supporter of Israel. The two go back and forth for a couple of minutes. Taylor Doggett, Dunn’s campaign manager, who has been sitting on a kitchen stool checking her phone, stands and moves toward the living room in an apparent effort to end the exchange.

“Israel is our ally and that’s what I’ll stand by,” Dunn finally says.

Burdett later says he’s disappointed by Dunn’s answer: “It’s not as critical as I’d like it to be.” But he also allows that he’s likely to vote for him because he disapproves so strongly of AIPAC’s support for Elfreth.

“I’m thinking, who can do more damage to me at the local level?” Burdett says.

Another young progressive activist named Francis shakes Dunn’s hand at the end of the evening and offers a lukewarm piece of encouragement.

“I’m not sure who I’m voting for,” he tells the candidate, “but if you win, I will not be sad.”

“Thanks,” Dunn says, somewhat taken aback, half sarcastic and half grateful.

Another neighbor of the Dixons’, Matthew Grasmick, says he finds Dunn’s willingness to admit what he doesn’t know refreshing.

“I know he’s a novice politician,” Grasmick says. “I know he doesn’t have all the answers. I respect his character.”

Talking to a handful of people before making his presentation, Dunn ticks off a list of House members who are supporting him or who he expects to advise him if he makes it to Congress, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Reps. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.).

“These are the people I’m going to lean on,” he says.

The trials of a novice candidate

Despite encouraging poll results, despite the millions of dollars he’s been able to raise, Dunn concedes in an interview that he isn’t altogether sure how his campaign is doing — and says he’s letting the political professionals worry about it.

“I don’t know how it’s going,” he says. “It’s all new to me.”

Dunn can’t help but note that several of his opponents are seasoned politicians: “You have five legislators — they’ve all won election before.” But he’s also cognizant of some of his advantages.

“I’ve got more in-state and in-district donors than anybody else in the race,” he says.

But since he talks so much about the preservation of democracy, he also takes some comfort in the size of the Democratic field, a sign that the democratic process is, for now, alive and well. “Having 22 people running for office,” he says, “shows that people are caring.”

Dunn suggests he didn’t know what becoming a candidate would be like.

“This is hard,” he says. “Running is hard. The nudges in the back, the hugs, the big embraces, those are things that make it all worthwhile.”


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Live from Severna Park, it’s Harry Dunn