Was Capitol riot 'legitimate political discourse'? Suburban GOP congressional candidates divided

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the number of Republican candidates in the 11th District at the time of publication.

Of the more than 20 Republicans running for Congress in the North, Northwest and West suburbs, just four said they agree with the Republican National Committee's description of last year's deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol as "ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse."

Only one candidate outright rejected the RNC's characterization.

Five candidates denounced the rioters but wouldn't say if they agreed or disagreed with the RNC's statement. Others refused to answer questions about the historic event or couldn't be reached.

The controversial line appeared in a Feb. 4 RNC resolution censuring U.S. Reps. Adam Kinzinger of Channahon and Liz Cheney of Wyoming for serving on the House committee investigating the violence that occurred Jan. 6, 2021, as Congress met to certify Joe Biden's presidential victory over Donald Trump.

GOP Chair Ronna McDaniel subsequently condemned the Capitol violence in a column for and on Twitter.

Regardless, the phrase has been lambasted widely - including by Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell.

The Daily Herald asked GOP congressional candidates in Illinois' 3rd, 5th, 6th, 8th, 10th, 11th and 14th districts if they agreed with the RNC's description of what happened at the Capitol and, if so, to explain why.

If they didn't agree, they were asked to describe the events in their own words.

Who agreed?

Eleventh District candidate Catalina Lauf of Woodstock said she agreed with the RNC's statement. There are "widespread, absurd mischaracterizations of that day," said Lauf, who is among six Republicans vying to face Democratic incumbent Bill Foster of Naperville.

Sixth District candidate Rob Cruz of Oak Lawn also agreed with the RNC's assessment.

"There are several reports stating that most of the people who stormed the Capitol were middle-class people - plumbers, realtors, union workers," said Cruz, one of six Republicans seeking the seat held by Democrat Sean Casten of Downers Grove. "So I believe we would describe these as 'ordinary people.'"

In the 8th District, Chad Koppie of Gilberts also accepted the statement.

"There were a few bad apples that went too far on Jan. 6, but as a whole it was a peaceful and an important rally to try to get answers to what happened with our elections," said Koppie, one of two Republicans vying to face Democratic incumbent Raja Krishnamoorthi of Schaumburg.

Fourteenth District candidate Mike Koolidge of Rochelle agreed with the RNC's statement, too. Noting that the freedom to assemble is guaranteed by the First Amendment, he said the "vast majority" of protesters gathered peacefully "and freely expressed themselves."

Those who committed crimes should be prosecuted, said Koolidge, who's among five Republicans running to face Democratic incumbent Lauren Underwood of Naperville in the 14th District.

Some were critical

Gary Grasso, a GOP candidate in the 6th District, disagreed with the RNC's description.

"The storming of the Capitol by force was not legitimate political discourse," Grasso said. "It was a riot causing significant injuries and death, with deliberate destruction of sacred national ground."

Other candidates criticized the rioters but didn't call out the RNC over the censure language.

Winfield's Justin Burau, the lone Republican candidate seeking the open 3rd District seat, said those who "illegally and violently entered our nation's Capitol were not 'ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.'" But Burau also said the RNC's statement has been taken out of context, and he accepts McDaniel's clarifications.

Sixth District candidate Keith Pekau of Orland Park wouldn't say whether he agreed or disagreed. The issue is complicated, he said.

Regardless, the violence at the Capitol angered Pekau.

"The idiots who stormed the Capitol, acted violently and broke the law deserve to be prosecuted for their actions," he said.

Cassandra Tanner Miller, an Elgin Republican running in the 11th District, said she'd like to see the RNC's resolution clarified, but when pressed for an opinion, she wouldn't say if she disagreed with it.

"These are not simple yes-or-no questions," she said.

Fourteenth District candidate Jack Lombardi of Manhattan said the events of Jan. 6 started as a lawful demonstration but "spiraled out of control with the storming of the Capitol." But he wouldn't definitively say how he felt about the RNC's statement.

Another candidate in the 14th, Oswego's James Marter, called the violence and vandalism at the Capitol "disgusting and deplorable." But he said the RNC's statement referred not to the rioters but to the Americans who were in Washington to voice concerns about "fraud witnessed nationwide in the previous election."

In truth, no widespread fraud was discovered after the 2020 election.

What others said

Joe Severino, a Lake Forest Republican seeking to unseat Democrat Brad Schneider of Deerfield in the 10th District, denied the RNC meant rioting when stating "legitimate political discourse." When asked for his description of Jan. 6, Severino said doing so would be premature "absent all the facts."

Three candidates declined to answer the Daily Herald's questions: Malgorzata McGonigal of North Barrington, who's running for the 5th District seat held by Democrat Mike Quigley of Chicago; Scott Kaspar, a 6th District candidate from Orland Park; and Peter Kopsaftis, an 8th District hopeful from South Barrington.

Others didn't respond or couldn't be reached: 6th District candidates Niki Conforti of Glen Ellyn and Catherine A. O'Shea of Oak Lawn; 11th District candidates Jerry Evans of Warrenville, Grace Greene of St. Charles, Andrea Heeg of Geneva and Dean Seppelfrick of Aurora; and 14th District candidates Scott Gryder of Oswego and Susan Starrett of North Aurora.

The candidates who concurred with the RNC's statement and those who wouldn't say if they did were rebuked by Jake Lewis, the deputy director of the Illinois Democratic Party.

"Those who agree with the RNC are unfit to serve the people of this state and are shamefully dismissing the violent attack on Capitol police," Lewis said. "Those who refuse to answer are cowardly giving their tacit approval of the RNC's description and should not be allowed to continue to dodge this vital question."

• Daily Herald staff writers Eric Peterson and Katlyn Smith contributed to this report.

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