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Local Republicans' views differ on Capitol violence

Some Republican officials in the region have spoken out following violent riots at the United States Capitol last week, some sharing conspiracy theories about the events that unfolded and defending protesters' claims of voter fraud and election theft, while others have condemned what occured as acts of violence and domestic terrorism.

Phyllis Nelson, Republican chair of the Board of Finance in Sprague, said last week that she went to Washington, D.C., on a bus to participate in the protests — to defend the Constitution and speak out against election fraud — but did not set foot in the Capitol or on the stairs of the building. She said she left the Capitol grounds by 3 p.m. and left D.C. by 5 p.m., an hour before the city's curfew. Extremist groups stormed the Capitol about 2:15 p.m.

Claims of widespread election fraud have continuously been rejected by multiple courts, election officials — both Democratic and Republican — and law enforcement officials.

Nelson said she does not think pro-Trump Republicans who were rallying that day were the ones who "led the charge" to break into the Capitol, but that the break-in was led by members of antifa who were let into the grounds by Capitol Police.

"The problem was not patriots that went there to simply stand for freedom and for the Constitution, the problem was those that were bused in to incite and to create trouble," she said. She said it was "very clear" and that there were "all kinds of videos" to prove that those people were bused in by anti-facists known as antifa.

There has been no evidence brought by police or government officials of these claims.

The chairwoman, who also serves on the Sprague Republican Town Committee, said she went to D.C. with about 170 people from Connecticut. Two people from Groton were arrested in connection with the riots.

Nelson said she was motivated to go to D.C. to defend the Constitution "because it's all under attack." She said that, specifically, the 2nd Amendment is "almost extinct" in the state of Connecticut and that the results of the presidential election were fraudulent. She said that evidence of election fraud has been thrown out by courts and that the election is being stolen.

She said she did not think rioters should have broken the doors to get into the U.S. Capitol building. She said she chose not to go on the Capitol steps but understood why others did.

"They were not breaking and entering because that is the outside of the building, and it is the people's building. I know it's hard for people in Washington to understand that concept," she said.

Of her overall experience in Washington last Wednesday — a day that lawmakers across the country have condemned as violent, terroristic and treasonous — she said "it was actually beautiful."

"It was so beautiful to see so many people standing on one thing, freedom, it was wonderful," Nelson said. "It was people of every color, every culture, in no way shape or form is this a racist or hateful movement." She said she left before the violence began.

"It's freedom for all, I want everyone to enjoy freedom, not just a particular group," she said. "And that's how everyone I know in this movement feels."

Members of the crowd were seen wearing anti-Semitic clothing, including a sweatshirt that read "Camp Auschwitz," and carrying Confederate flags.

Nelson said she has been, and plans to continue being, "a patriot no matter who's president."

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said Nelson's statements about antifa were "just a lie."

"The conspiracy theories and outright inaccurate statements are only harming our country," she said. In a statement issued last week, she encouraged people to fact-check information that they share on social media and expand their social circles to include diverse political views and opinions based on fact.

Michael Meadows, chairman of the Sprague Republican Town Committee, said in a statement that it would be inappropriate for him to comment on Nelson's comments on behalf of the committee because he had not seen the comments nor had a chance to speak with Nelson.

'This is disgusting'

While other local Republicans agreed with Nelson that the violence was the work of antifa, not Trump supporters, others condemned the role Trump played.

East Lyme Republican Town Committee Chairman Lawrence Fitzgerald emailed a statement to The Day on Monday saying he and 14 other East Lyme Republicans who signed "strongly condemn the actions of the insurrectionists including the inciteful rhetoric of the President of the United States."

"All those that participated in unlawful actions should be swiftly brought to justice," they wrote. "We support the peaceful and smooth transition of power. This is what we come to expect and have enjoyed throughout our celebrated history as the beacon of democracy."

The signatories include Sen. Paul Formica, Rep. Holly Cheeseman, First Selectman Mark Nickerson and all three other Republican members of the Board of Selectmen, Board of Education members John Kleinhans and Jaime Barr Shelburn, Registrar of Voters Mary Devine Smith, Tax Collector John McCulloch and alternates on other commissions as well as other RTC members.

Kleinhans tweeted last Wednesday that the taped message from Trump "is even more disgraceful. He continues to lie, and continues to stoke emotions. This is disgusting."

The Republican statement said healing our nation starts at home, and that they "pray that this dreadful event brings us even closer in a spirit of mutual respect, civility, humility, and affection so that may solve the significant challenges that face us."

In his own statement, Formica, who represents Bozrah, East Lyme, Montville, New London, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook, Salem and Waterford and is the deputy Senate Republican leader, also spoke out against the violence at the Capitol.

"I strongly condemn the violent and destructive actions of those who stormed our Congress today in Washington D.C. in an attempt to disrupt our democracy in action," Formica said in a statement.

He compared the riots in Washington to peaceful protests in Hartford on Wednesday morning.

"As I was being sworn in this morning as your State Senator, we were surrounded by protesters who exercised their first amendment rights peaceably and respectfully as we all should be able to do. What happened today in D.C. was the complete opposite. We should never resort to, nor condone violence as a means of expression. Those actions today in our nation's capital are completely unacceptable," he said.

The senator also urged fellow Republicans to accept the results of the election.

"The election is over. The President has lost both at the ballot box and in the courts. It's time for us to move forward peacefully," he said in a statement.

Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, posted a statement on Twitter last week that said the riots were "Shameful. Treasonous. Sedition."

"This must end. Now. I pray for our democracy — a democracy which has spoken. @POTUS lost the election. A peaceful transition is integral," Somers wrote.

Trump 'crybaby loser'

In a Jan. 6 Facebook post, John Scott, the Groton RTC chairman, wrote, "I'm not convinced these people are Trump supporters. My money is on Antifa," alongside an image of a man authorities have identified as Jacob Anthony Chansley, or Jake Angeli, of Arizona, a well-known member of far-right conspiracy group QAnon, standing in the U.S. Senate Chamber.

Chansley was charged in federal court Saturday with knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority, and with violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds, according to the United State Justice Department.

Scott said by phone Monday that he now knows it was QAnon, a right-wing group that he does not support, involved in the riots and pictured in the photo he shared: "It was a fringe group that really has nothing to do with us as Republicans," he said, adding that he thinks it's unfortunate that Republicans are being painted with a broad brush when it "happened at the fringe level of the political world."

"We don't condone what happened in Washington," said Scott, who was not in Washington, D.C. "We never would condone what happened in Washington at the Capitol Building."

Among his other posts, Scott said Trump has lost and "It's time to transition power to those who won."

Lauren Gauthier, vice chair of the Groton Republican Town Committee and a Groton Representative Town Meeting member, told The Day she got a call on New Year's Day from a man asking her if she was "Lauren Gauthier of the CT GOP" and calling to see if she had heard of President Trump's "call to action to stand against electoral fraud and pressure Congress to not certify the Electoral College vote."

She was instantly angry and "told him that Donald Trump was a 'crybaby loser,' that his lies have been destroying American democracy and that any person who goes down there to disrupt Congress is a seditionist and a traitor." She also shared her story on Facebook.

Rob Dempsky, Norwich Republican Town Committee chairman, changed the image on his Facebook page the early morning hours of Jan. 6 to feature an image of Trump appearing to reach over to shake hands with a mirror image of Trump. "Peaceful Transition of Power," the caption beneath states.

Dempsky, who did not go to D.C., said he condemns the violence and said anyone who "crossed the threshold" of the Capitol and breached the security barriers should be prosecuted.

But Dempsky questions everything from President-elect Joe Biden's election on Nov. 3 to the main culprits in the Capitol violence. On Saturday, Dempsky posted a video and argued that Trump's massive rallies all have been peaceful over the years and in recent months, but the violence last Wednesday "is reminiscent of a DIFFERENT group of protesters."

"We have witnesses and video indicating that three busloads of Antifa were escorted to the Capitol area by various law-enforcement vehicles," Dempsky wrote in the post.

In a telephone interview Monday, he argued that the violent Capitol disruption came as Republicans in Congress were objecting to the certification of the Electoral College votes, and it would not have benefited Trump supporters to disrupt that process.

Dempsky also noted that many of the Trump supporters at the Jan. 6 rally did not march on the Capitol and remained peaceful. He said the shutdown of conservative online platforms now makes it difficult to access the video evidence that antifa and Black Lives Matters supporters had participated in the Capitol raid.

"Absolutely, there were Trump supporters entering the Capitol," Dempsky said, "and I'm telling them, every single person who entered the Capitol should be arrested."

Staff Writers Claire Bessette and Erica Moser contributed to this report.

t.hartz@theday.com

k.drelich@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version clarifies Norwich RTC Chairman Rob Dempsky's position on the U.S. Capitol violence.

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