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OPINION: Capitol cops offer a reminder of what’s at stake amid election scare tactics

John L. Smith
John L. Smith

Not satisfied with supporting a failed insurrection and filing a mountain of specious litigation, Nevada’s Team Trump Republicans are at it again. They filed another lawsuit Monday, this one claiming the secretary of state and various county clerks are illegally allowing the counting of mail-in ballots without postmarks.

Offering zero proof of voter fraud, indicted 2020 presidential election denier and Nevada Republican Party Chairman Michael McDonald turned the hypocrisy knob to 11. “We are committed to ensuring the integrity of Nevada’s elections and inspiring voter confidence,” he said in a statement that attempted to erode voter confidence. “… We will continue to fight for fair elections for all Nevadans where only legal votes are counted and the system is secure.”

Legal votes. You know, like the ones the Nevada GOP’s fake electors attempted to pass off as part of a fraud scheme to undermine the outcome of the 2020 presidential race. Or the Trump loyalists who filed feckless and fact-less lawsuits claiming voter fraud during the “Stop the Steal” charade that culminated in a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The state’s Republicans picked the wrong guy to debate ballot integrity or call anything “potentially fraudulent.”

A secure system. This from the crowd that helped villainize Dominion Voting Systems and other ballot counting companies without a hanging chad of evidence. The post-election propaganda campaign was so toxic that it resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in successful defamation claims against its many promoters, especially Fox News.

The most recent lawsuit is the third filed in the 2024 election cycle. If the GOP continues to follow its recent strategy, its attorneys are just warming up. To date the efforts have amounted to legalistic scare tactics meant to fire up Trump’s base and sow doubts in the integrity of the process attorneys claim to be defending. It’s shameless, but nothing new.

And it continues throughout Nevada, where the deep-state snipe hunt never ends and its harassed victims aren’t strangers, but friends and neighbors.

Another political event took place this past week. Former U.S. Capitol Police officers Harry Dunn and Aquilino Gonell made stops in Las Vegas and Reno to stump on behalf of the President Joe Biden's re-election campaign. The unabashed supporters of the president spoke about standing shoulder to shoulder with their fellow officers on Jan. 6, 2021, defending the Capitol from a mob of 2,500 that attempted to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power. It was a day that changed the two men forever.

The men took different life paths to the Capitol. Dunn was born in Maryland not far from Washington, D.C. He spent 15 years in uniform after learning about the job at a career fair. In my brief conversation with him, he spoke with deep sincerity about his “desire to help people.” He’d grown up protecting his four sisters, so perhaps protecting elected officials and staffers on either side of the aisle, and throngs of tourists came naturally to him.

Dunn published a memoir and made a spirited run for Congress in the aftermath of Jan. 6 and remains politically active. He notes the irony of a Capitol police officer gaining a high profile.

“Before Jan. 6 people didn’t even know the Capitol Police existed because everything worked so smoothly and officers were just fantastic at doing our jobs, creating a safe environment for staff, members (of Congress), and visitors,” he says.

Gonell immigrated from the Dominican Republic as a boy, gained his citizenship and joined the U.S. Army prior to 9/11. He served in the Iraq War, rising to the rank of sergeant. He voted for the first time as an American citizen during his combat service. After leaving the military, he joined the Capitol Police and spent 17 years on the job, again rising to the rank of sergeant. Like Dunn, he had witnessed many protests — some quite loud and lively — during his career. After receiving substantial injuries in the Jan. 6 melee at the Capitol, he is still convinced that the right to assemble and peacefully protest is part of what makes America great.

“I worked a lot of different events at the Capitol both political and nonpolitical with people exercising their First Amendment rights,” says Gonell, who suffered foot, hand and shoulder injuries during the riot. “I never had a problem with anyone before Jan. 6.” … On that day, “I found myself fighting for my life because Trump supporters were attacking the United States Capitol.”

“Over the course of our careers, it’s safe to say we’ve overseen thousands of protests at the Capitol,” Dunn says. “That’s not an exaggerated number, but they were peaceful. Even if there were issues that we didn’t agree with on a personal level or political level, we were there protecting their right … to express themselves. … We were showing up to do our jobs, and what we saw in person was 100 times worse than what you saw on TV.”

It’s what happened after Jan. 6 that moved Gonell, who describes himself as apolitical before Jan. 6, to actively speak on behalf of Biden. It hit Gonell viscerally to watch Republican members of Congress downplay the violence and hear Trump talk about pardons for some of the worst actors.

“Joe Biden, on the other hand, he’s fighting for our democracy,” Gonell says. “Joe Biden is not the one dangling pardons for (the rioters.)”

Some will try to write off the appearances of Dunn and Gonell as simple political theater by the Democrats with polls showing Biden trailing Trump in several swing states. The former officers freely acknowledge they don’t want the country to move on from that awful day that resulted in several deaths, hundreds of injuries and more than 1,250 arrests. For them, it remains personal.

Their Nevada visits generated news coverage and provided a reminder that the specter of the Capitol riot holds powerful meaning in 2024 — at least to some Americans.

The officers made stops in other battleground states. Some events went better than others. An invitation to appear before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, for instance, resulted in boos and a partial walkout by some Republicans.

Considering all that Dunn and Gonell have experienced, something tells me they’re tough enough to take it in stride.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR.


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