At just past 10 a.m. on a gray April Saturday, ex-Capitol cop Harry Dunn entered an office serving as his Ellicott City campaign headquarters to kick off a door-knocking event.

After some hugs and handshakes, he told the dozen or so volunteers and staff chomping on doughnuts and sipping coffee that seeing them sacrifice their Saturday morning to help him campaign makes him realize he’s “not crazy” for launching a bid to represent Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

It’s the weekend before early in-person voting begins in the primary election, and weeks before the Democratic-majority district will choose one hopeful from a field of 22 as its likely next congressperson. The district, one of the wealthiest and most educated in the country, covers all of Howard County, northern and central Anne Arundel County and a piece of Carroll County.

As one of three front-runners, Dunn has drawn a national spotlight and millions in out-of-state donations to a race chock full of state politicians and regular citizens who have never before run for office. But Dunn, along with state Sens. Sarah Elfreth and Clarence Lam, has earned enough in campaign dollars to put his messaging on blast, and together the trio has drowned out the candidacies of pretty much everyone else.

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Candidates share policy ideas

Voters wading through an ocean of TV ads and jumbo, glossy campaign mailers, won’t find stark policy differences. When it comes to women’s reproductive rights, protecting the Chesapeake Bay, strengthening the nation’s democracy and other key policy areas, there’s little to no room between most in the field.

Dunn’s campaign pillar has been his service defending the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and his willingness to do the same via policy. Elfreth has pitched herself as the hardworking, dedicated and experienced legislator running on a track record of passing dozens of bills and doggedly serving her constituents. Lam, a practicing medical doctor and health policy expert, sees himself as a lawmaker who will offer unique insights on health care legislation and who will speak up and hold people accountable.

But what seems to be making a difference to voters is the credentials of the established lawmakers and the way the most well-funded candidates have run their campaigns.

Annapolis residents and retirees Marian and Roger Soriano said they want Elfreth in Congress because she has experience.

“We want somebody who knows what they’re doing,” 74-year-old Marian Soriano said, moments after Elfreth knocked at her door.

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Although they appreciate Dunn’s service, and see him as “a nice guy,” he’s not getting their vote. The lack of a basic understanding of how the government works by current members of Congress and the former president has frustrated them, Marian Soriano said.

Lam supporter Dianne Henry of Columbia said she was turned off by the large campaign sums advantaging Dunn and Elfreth. Dunn had another strike because he didn’t live in the 3rd District, she said.

Cathy Teleky, a retiree from Howard County, said she’s all in for Dunn because he pledged not to accept support from third-party political action committees, often dubbed super PACs.

“One of the main things that has gotten us into this partisan mess is dark money,” she said of the state of American politics. “And there’s only one of the 22 candidates taking it.”

Teleky is talking about Elfreth. The pro-Israel lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, began backing Elfreth last month, with their super PAC, the United Democracy Project, airing ads. Elfreth’s campaign said they did not solicit the support, but had posted video, photos and messaging on her campaign website in a way interpreted as an invitation for outside groups to use it. Elfreth’s campaign website has since removed the material.

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Elfreth said she plans to advocate for campaign finance reform should she get elected, continuing the work of U.S. Rep John Sarbanes, who has doggedly fought against dark money influencing elections.

“But at the same time, this is the finance system we have,” she said. “And there’s a group that’s amplifying my positive message, and I legally am not in a position to tell them ‘no.’”

Dunn has sworn off outside funding, earning him the endorsement of anti-dark money group End Citizens United/Let America Vote.

Lam, who has raised the least money of the three, is still competitive enough to run regular TV ads. He said he hopes the way he’s run and funded his campaign sets him apart.

National platform for Dunn

But Dunn has had some negative press of his own. Punchbowl news reported in March that Dunn in 2012 was suspended from his job for four days for not properly storing his service weapon. The violation was discovered during an investigation into a domestic dispute between Dunn and his now ex-wife Danyel. Both were found by police with scratches on them.

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A Montgomery County Police report said Dunn’s wife alleged he had pointed a gun at her, Punchbowl reported this week. Investigations did not find evidence to support the claim, but the report said Dunn “handled his firearm in such a way as to cause his wife to feel intimidated and to cause his wife to allege to the MCPD that Dunn had pointed his gun at her.”

In a statement from the former couple released in March, they said: “At no point were we physically violent toward each other or our family, and we never made our home feel unsafe.”

But Dunn, who has never held public office or ran for one, has towering advantages over his competition — $4.5 million in campaign donations, according to the latest reports, and the instant name and face recognition as a living, breathing symbol of defending American democracy.

Dunn’s testimony before a congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection has given him a national platform from which to launch a political campaign and has inspired a groundswell of out-of-state donations.

”If Jan. 6 didn’t happen, then I’m not running for Congress,” Dunn said while canvassing on a residential Columbia street. He would probably still be guarding the Capitol, he said. Dunn chose to resign, but he sees a position inside the halls of Congress as a way to continue serving the public.

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Ex-Capitol cop Harry Dunn speaks with campaign volunteer Cathy Teleky at his Ellicott City campaign headquarters on Saturday, April 27, 2024.
Ex-Capitol cop Harry Dunn speaks with volunteer Cathy Teleky at his Ellicott City campaign headquarters on Saturday, April 27, 2024. (Brenda Wintrode)

Retiree and Dunn campaign volunteer Clair Dixon said he’s helping the former cop because Dunn “won’t be intimidated” by Republicans in Congress.

Defending democracy ranks high among voters from both parties, according to recent polling, and the excitement Dunn generates with voters played out a few times that Saturday morning. Just as Dunn approached a house, a man standing in the doorway lit up with surprise.

”He’s one of the heroes of the Capitol,” the man told his son, as he shook Dunn’s hand and thanked him for his service.

Dunn said this interaction typifies his door-knocking experiences. Voters he did catch at home that day seemed less interested in his policy ideas.

But Dunn will be the first to admit defending the Capitol along with a slew of officers is not the same as working in Congress, and he agrees that he’ll face a steep learning curve should he be elected. He also swats away criticism that he doesn’t live in the district he’d represent. Such borders don’t define community, he said. But plans are in the works to move if he should win.

Local celebrity politician

Across the district, Elfreth’s quick footsteps race from one voter’s door to the next. Head down and focused on a campaign app on her phone that tells her the next address of a likely Democratic primary voter, she plans to hit as many doors as she can in the next several hours.

Elfreth said she’s aware Dunn has been heralded on social media as someone with “star power,” but that’s not what draws her to a seat in Congress. For her, entering the race wasn’t about reaching for the next rung on a political ladder.

”I just want to be a good and effective representative of my community,” she said.

State Sen. Sarah Elfreth with campaign fellow Kyra Mahoney thanks a team of volunteers before they canvass neighborhoods in Howard County for Elfreth's congressional run on April 27, 2024.
State Sen. Sarah Elfreth with campaign fellow Kyra Mahoney thanks a team of volunteers before they canvass neighborhoods in Howard County for Elfreth’s congressional run on April 27, 2024. (Brenda Wintrode)

In her own backyard, though, Elfreth enjoys a celebrity status — one she’s earned from nearly six years as an engaged state senator. Though she’s knocked on these same doors less than two years ago and in campaigns past, she’s taking nothing for granted.

She hopes to have their support, she says, to house after house of people who have likely voted for her before.

One man answers his door and stops her midsentence: “You already have my vote,” he tells her, saving her the spiel. At another house, a teen constituent asks for a selfie. During a conversation on women’s reproductive rights with one neighbor, another interrupts from her silver Mercedes, waving down Elfreth.

”Sen. Elfreth … you can put a sign in my yard,” she offered.

Elfreth has landed multiple national endorsements, including the teachers and firefighters unions, and national advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters.

Her campaign has received support from top Maryland politicians, including U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin and former U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, and official endorsements from former Gov. Parris Glendening and a host of local officials, most from Anne Arundel County.

Can candidates broaden appeal?

Lam has been endorsed by a number of Howard County officials, colleagues in the legislature and advocacy organizations, including Progressive Neighbors and regional Democratic clubs.

The former delegate and three-term senator, Lam, said he feels “comfortable” with the campaign that he’s run, and ultimately, “it’s the voters in the district that will decide” who gets the job.

Should they pick him, he said, he’s ready to walk away from his decades-long career as a practicing physician because he understands that Congress will be a full-time job. There, he’ll continue his lifelong mission of helping people, just through policy change, he said.

But Lam didn’t register above single digits in a survey of likely voters in Anne Arundel County, and it’s unclear how Elfreth would rank in his backyard of Howard County. The Howard and Anne Arundel County portions of the district hold nearly equal numbers of Democrats.

Dan Nataf, a political science professor at Anne Arundel Community College, said his survey conducted in early April showed Elfreth handily taking her home turf with Dunn and Anne Arundel County Del. Mark Chang tied for a distant second.

The challenge for any 3rd District candidate is to garner votes across all of the counties, Nataf said.

Nataf called Dunn a “celebrity” candidate who happens to have big name endorsements from people Capitol Police protected in Congress, including U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and lots of money but no endorsements from politicians within the 3rd Congressional District.

Dunn’s appeal may score with voters focused on threats to democracy, he said. However, his lack of experience may make him susceptible to following the whims of Democratic House leadership if he’s elected, Nataf said.

On Lam, Nataf said he has been an impressive and smart candidate with a wide grasp on a broad range of issues, but thinks his campaign may not reach far enough to win.

There’s also a notable and stark contrast in policy depth between Dunn and others running, he said. Nataf saw this firsthand as he moderated a candidate forum in Annapolis between a number of the candidates, including Dunn, Elfreth and Lam.

“When you ask Sarah about Medicare for all, she’s gonna have a two-hour answer for you,” Nataf said. “If you asked him [Dunn] the mechanics of getting that passed, I don’t know how long of a conversation that would be.”

Brenda Wintrode covers state government, agencies and politics. Before joining The Baltimore Banner, Wintrode wrote an award winning series of long form investigations for Wisconsin Watch.

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