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'I was the last one to find out:' Grafton's Tom Campbell left U.S. Capitol building hours before violence broke out

A former North Dakota state lawmaker was in D.C. for the Save America Rally on Wednesday, Jan. 6, but left about three hours before the demonstration escalated into a riot. He said he didn't learn

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Former state lawmaker and Grafton businessman Tom Campbell booked tickets to President Donald Trump's 'Save America' Rally in D.C. protesting election results on a whim. He left to catch a flight about three hours before the protest escalated into rioting. // Photo by Tom Campbell
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Grafton businessman and former North Dakota state lawmaker Tom Campbell was in Washington, D.C., and at the Save America Rally Wednesday, Jan. 6, but he didn't stay long enough to hear President Donald Trump give his speech. He had booked his flight back to Fargo days earlier -- it was one of the only flights back to North Dakota that he could get.

The fact that he missed Trump's fiery speech, and the subsequent raucous pro-Trump riot in the U.S. Capitol building that resulted in the deaths of four people, was pure coincidence.

"When I landed in Chicago, my phone just lit up, and I was like, 'What the heck happened,'" he said. "I had no clue. I was the last one to find out about it."

Campbell booked the flight to D.C. on somewhat of a whim. He has friends and supporters who are concerned about the possibility of a fraudulent election, and Campbell has his own concerns, as well. (Lawmakers of both parties have said there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud.) Knowing there would be some kind of demonstration at the U.S. Capitol building, Campbell decided to fly to D.C. to witness history.

The rally and peaceful protest at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday morning was the first demonstration Campbell had ever attended. In the crowd at the rally, there were signs of home: He recalled several familiar faces from his time in Bismarck and caught sight of more than one NDSU Bison logo.

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Near the back of the crowd, Campbell said he was aware that Rudy Giuliani was speaking, but he was too far away to make out what was being said.

He left the rally at about noon to catch his flight. When he learned that the protest had escalated into what some have described as an insurrection, he struggled to mentally connect the crowd of peaceful protesters he had witnessed with the mob that breeched the U.S. Capitol building hours later.

More than anything, he said he was saddened by the evening's events. He said that, like with the riots seen in Minneapolis after George Floyd's death, he believes the vast majority of protesters don't believe in violence, and the instigators represent a very small number of radicals.

"The sad thing is so many people are going to say this is what Trump supporters all wanted, which is not true -- this is what one thousandth of 1% wanted, if they even were Trump supporters," he said. "99.99% of people there didn't like violent protesting. It was very peaceful. It was just peaceful as could be. It was just some radicals that, whatever inspired them to do what they did, it was just a bad deal."

Campbell doesn't know what happens next, but he believes the conflict is far from over. He said it will be important for Congress to prove that the 2020 election was fair, and that all future U.S. elections will be honest.

"I'm concerned. I think our country is in a little bit of a civil war," he said. "It's so sad. It's so split. It's kind of scary, it's very scary. We have to move on and unite."

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