Jan. 6 Rioter Is Running for Office in South Carolina. How Will Voters See Him?

Jan. 6 Rioter Is Running for Office in South Carolina. How Will Voters See Him?

More than two years after Elias Irizarry breached the U.S. Capitol with other Trump supporters, he wrote a letter to Judge Tanya S. Chutkan as he waited for her to determine his sentence.

“I want to make clear that I am not writing to make excuses or defend my actions,” he told Judge Chutkan, of Federal District Court in Washington. “My participation in an event like January 6th has brought great shame upon myself, my family, and, unfortunately, my country.”

Today, Mr. Irizarry, a recent graduate of the Citadel, the renowned South Carolina military college, is mounting a primary challenge to a Republican in the state’s House of Representatives. His website recently noted his prosecution for engaging in “nonviolent activities” at the Capitol on Jan. 6 as proof that he has “always stood for the conservative movement.”

“At every pivotal moment of the America First movement,” the website declared, “Elias has been there.”

The reference to Jan. 6 disappeared from the website after The New York Times discussed it with Mr. Irizarry’s federal public defender. In a text message Sunday night, Mr. Irizarry said he had initially mentioned his involvement in the Jan. 6 riots on his website bio “for the sake of transparency.”

Mr. Irizarry declined interview requests, but much of his story is detailed in his court record.

He was 19 when he entered the Capitol through a broken window, wearing a red MAGA hat and carrying a metal pole. Since then, Judge Chutkan, Republican politicians in South Carolina and the Citadel have grappled with the question of whether he deserves reproach or redemption — a question being asked, in one way or another, of many of the 1,200-plus Americans charged with taking part in the Jan. 6 attack.

In the South Carolina primary on Tuesday, the question will fall to voters in the state’s House District 43, a rural area so conservative that Democrats are not fielding a general election candidate. Two years ago, the incumbent, State Representative Randy Ligon, faced a primary challenger who called him “RINO Randy Ligon.” Mr. Ligon won by a mere 139 votes; this year, that challenger has endorsed Mr. Irizarry.

Perhaps more important, Mr. Irizarry appears to have bet that primary voters would see his federal trespassing conviction as a badge of honor. Some clearly do.

On Wednesday evening, Grant Martin, 72, a retired property manager from Richburg, S.C., said he had not researched the race yet. But he said that given Mr. Irizarry’s participation in the riot, “I would be more apt to vote for him.”

“If I could, I would have been right there,” Mr. Martin said of the Jan. 6 attack.

Though many Republican leaders denounced the attack in the immediate aftermath, former President Donald J. Trump, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, has more recently sought to rebrand the rioters as “unbelievable patriots.” A CBS News/YouGov poll in January found that the percentage of Republicans who approve of the Jan. 6 rioters has risen to 30 percent, from 21 percent in 2021. Among self-identified “MAGA” Republicans, approval stood at 43 percent.

As a 22-year-old political neophyte, Mr. Irizarry is the underdog in the race. A number of other Jan. 6 participants who have run for office around the country this season have lost, including Derrick Evans, a former West Virginia state lawmaker who pleaded guilty to a felony for his role in the attack and was defeated in a Republican primary for a Congressional seat there in May.

Still, the conflicting feelings about the attack among MAGA Republicans have put Mr. Ligon in an awkward position. In an interview on Thursday, he declined to answer when asked whether voters should hold Jan. 6 against Mr. Irizarry. “I’m not going to speak for the voters,” he said.

According to court records, Mr. Irizarry spent his early years in Montclair, N.J., where his family struggled economically. “We grew up in a suburb of New York that boasted how liberal it was, but on the flip side, was a town full of upper class families who made fun of our small 2-bedroom apartment,” his older sister, Aria Irizarry, wrote in a letter to Judge Chutkan.

He is mentioned in a 2017 newspaper article for speaking out at a town meeting against a resolution pledging to create a welcoming environment for immigrants, including undocumented ones.

Eventually his family moved to South Carolina. Mr. Irizarry, who was involved in the military’s Junior R.O.T.C. program and the Civil Air Patrol, had set his sights on the Citadel, with the aim of becoming an officer in the Air Force.

It was fellow Civil Air Patrol members who recognized him in wanted posters that the F.B.I. distributed as it sought to identify Jan. 6 participants who had been captured on video.

Federal officials, in court documents, said that Mr. Irizarry and two friends, Elliot Bishai and Grayson Sherrill, marched to the Capitol after attending Mr. Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally nearby. Mr. Sherrill, at one point, swung a metal pole at a police officer. At another point, Mr. Bishai yelled, “Civil War Two!”

Eventually, Mr. Irizarry climbed through scaffolding to the building’s Upper West Terrace, where he waved fellow rioters toward the stairs. After entering the Capitol, he wandered around with his metal pole, shot video in a Senate conference room, rode an elevator and hung around in the Rotunda. He left 27 minutes later.

He was arrested in March 2021 and pleaded not guilty to four misdemeanors. In December 2022, the Citadel suspended him for “conduct unbecoming a cadet” but said he could reapply for admission.

None of it squelched his interest in politics. At some point after his arrest, Mr. Irizarry inquired about working as an intern for U.S. Representative Ralph Norman, a far-right legislator who represents the northern stretch of South Carolina where Mr. Irizarry had finished high school.

David O’Neal, a member of the South Carolina House who served as Mr. Norman’s district director at the time, said he thought the hire was a “great idea,” but that Mr. Norman’s chief of staff rejected the idea.

“The optics of him working in the Capitol that he was charged with trespassing in was just not a good look,” Mr. O’Neal said in an interview.

So Mr. O’Neal eventually found Mr. Irizarry a job as a page at the State Capitol in Columbia. “He’s a good kid,” Mr. O’Neal told The State newspaper at the time. “He made a mistake.”

Eventually, Mr. Irizarry pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor trespassing charge as part of a plea deal. Before his sentencing hearing in March, teachers, relatives and friends wrote to Judge Chutkan, vouching for his character and noting his good grades and record of volunteer work. “I have no evidence that he has given up or resigned himself to an ignominious future,” wrote DuBose Kapeluck, the then-chair of The Citadel’s political science department.

Judge Chutkan said in court that day that she had slept fitfully before his sentencing, calling it “one of the most difficult I have had” among her many Jan. 6 cases, given Mr. Irizarry’s youth and his “commendable” record before the breach.

The government took a different position, recommending 45 days in prison and painting Mr. Irizarry as an unremorseful character. Prosecutors said that he and Mr. Bishai participated in a group chat titled “Civil War” after the attack, in which they “discussed using small planes to cross borders undetected” and discussed joining the Russian army if they were kicked out of the United States.

Judge Chutkan was swayed by Mr. Irizarry’s note of contrition. “This is not who you are; this is one thing you did,” she told him. She ordered him to be jailed for 14 days.Credit…Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, via Associated Press

But Judge Chutkan was swayed by Mr. Irizarry’s note of contrition. “This is not who you are; this is one thing you did,” she told him. She ordered him to be jailed for 14 days. Later, she wrote a letter to the Citadel on Mr. Irizarry’s behalf as he sought reinstatement at the school. In it, she said he had “displayed impressive sincerity, remorse,

and a determination to make amends.”

The Citadel, a public school founded in Charleston, S.C., in 1842, commands a special place of respect in a state that puts a high value on military service. It is known for putting its cadets through grueling physical and mental challenges, and for its code of honor: “A Cadet does not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do.”

The school reinstated Mr. Irizarry at the start of the 2023 academic year; a spokesman declined to explain the school’s reasoning. On May 4, Mr. Irizarry graduated magna cum laude.

Mr. Irizarry had already begun running for Mr. Ligon’s seat. In April, he paid a visit to a local Republican Party meeting in Chester County, where he and Mr. Ligon were invited to speak briefly. Neither mentioned Jan. 6.

Mr. Ligon, 63, who owns a real estate company, spoke about his wife of 40 years, the sanctity of the Second Amendment and “a flood of immigrants coming across the border that want to infiltrate our elections.”

Mr. Irizarry told the group that the state Republican Party had become unmoored from fiscally conservative principles, suggesting that tax dollars were being unwisely spent to subsidize electric car plants.

A down-ticket rural contest like this one usually plays out not on physical hustings, but with social media, yard signs, push polls and texts. Online, Mr. Irizarry’s supporters have written posts calling him a “Trump-supporting J-6 patriot” and “a J6 prisoner” intent on putting “America first.”

Mr. Ligon has received the endorsement of Mr. Trump. Mr. Irizarry has been endorsed by Mr. Norman and the Republican Party of York County, the other county that the district partially covers.

After the Chester County meeting, James Reinhardt, 80, a retired radiologist and vice chair of the county Republican Party, said he was voting for Mr. Ligon, who he has known personally for years. But he commended Mr. Irizarry for running.

The Jan. 6 insurrection, he said, “shouldn’t have happened.” But he also said it had been “blown out of proportion to the Democrats’ advantage.”

Mr. Irizarry, in a coat and tie, was still working the room, surrounded by a gaggle of fellow clean-cut cadets who had come to show support.

“He seems to be a bright young man,” Dr. Reinhart said. “I like him ’cause he’s got a haircut. And he went to the Citadel.”

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