DERBY, Conn. — Republican voters in Derby, Connecticut, have rejected the city’s three-term incumbent mayor in favor of a man who was charged with trespassing during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Gino DiGiovanni Jr., a member of the local board of aldermen, beat Mayor Richard Dziekan in the Republican primary by just 10 votes — 202-192. The initial result was confirmed in a recount Friday afternoon, which was triggered automatically by the slim margin.
The rise of DiGiovanni, 42, has astonished leaders in Connecticut, where 59% of voters cast their ballots for Joe Biden in 2020. Only a handful of Connecticut residents have been charged in connection with the riot.
His win is also notable for Derby, an old mill city of just over 12,000 people. The presidential race was close: Biden beat Donald Trump in Derby by 4 points. So was the 2021 race for mayor: Dziekan beat his Democratic opponent by just 48 votes.
“It’s not like Derby is some town in the Deep South where there’s an overwhelming amount of support for Trump,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, a longtime Democratic operative in Connecticut, adding, “It’s not a hotbed of MAGA activity.”
Dziekan, 57, intends to appear on the November ballot anyway, as a candidate unaffiliated with a political party. He will also face Joe DiMartino, 57, the Democratic nominee; and Sharlene McEvoy, a 73-year-old retired law professor, another nonaffiliated candidate.
DiGiovanni is among just a handful of elected officials across the country to be charged in connection with the Capitol riot. Bob Duff, the state Senate majority leader in Connecticut, said DiGiovanni’s rise shows the danger of voters not paying close attention to local elections. “Too many people focus entirely on the federal level,” he said.
But the local level is where the fight for democracy matters most, he said. “The system of government gets infiltrated, and then people work their way up. That’s where it rots.”
DiGiovanni, who said he recognizes Biden as president, said he traveled to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, to hear Trump’s speech. Then, he said, he followed the crowd. He entered the Capitol through a door that a Capitol Police officer was holding open, took a look around and left, he said. He saw no violence, he said, and engaged in no violence.
“I didn’t go down there to overthrow the government,” he said, adding, “I didn’t know there was going to be a quote-unquote insurrection.”
He faces federal misdemeanor trespassing charges but has not yet entered a plea.
“I’m not an election denier,” he said, adding, “I’m not this crazy tinfoil-hat conspiracy wack job.”
Statewide, DiGiovanni said, he is now known as a “domestic terrorist.” But locally, he is widely liked. He played and later coached football, and he helped build a local Sept. 11 memorial.
“There are people who have given Gino a pass for his role in Jan. 6 because he is a nice guy,” said Jim Gildea, the chair of Derby’s board of education and a longtime figure in city politics.
Even DiGiovanni’s political opponents speak mildly of him and his actions on Jan. 6.
“Was his judgment a little off?” Dziekan said. “I think so. But he’s a great guy.”
DiMartino said, “I don’t think it was a great move on his part,” adding, “I’m not trying to really bash him.”
In fact, Derby leaders said, the primary was less a referendum on DiGiovanni’s participation on Jan. 6 than on Dziekan’s record.
This month, state officials put Derby’s finances under strict oversight after an audit found a $1.9 million deficit when the city was projected to have a $1 million surplus. The city does not have a finance director, a main criticism of Dziekan.
“I’m a mayor, but my hands are tied,” he said. “I can only do so much, and sometimes, people are going to get mad at you.”
Noah Bookbinder, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog, said that voters’ support of DiGiovanni reveals a worrying trend: Although only a few politicians were charged in connection with Jan. 6, many play down the violence.
“The significance in some ways goes beyond both the size of this particular community in Connecticut,” he said, arguing that acceptance makes it harder for the country to learn from the riot.
Connecticut lawmakers considered a bill that would have barred people who participated in an insurrection from holding office. But the legislation died, said Duff, who co-sponsored it.
DiGiovanni, Duff said, “was Exhibit A as to why we needed this legislation.” He added, “He should not be anywhere near the levers of government.”
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