Brother of boy killed at Newtown runs for office backing Trump and gun rights
By ISAAC STANLEY-BECKER | The Washington Post | Published: July 17, 2019
On Dec. 14, 2012, Joseph Theodore "JT" Lewis huddled in the back of his Spanish class at Newtown Middle School while a gunman clad in sunglasses and an olive green utility vest massacred 20 children and six adults two miles away at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Eight hours later Lewis, then 12, learned that the dead included his kid brother, Jesse, who had yelled "Run!" as the gunman paused in his first-grade classroom. While his classmates took his advice — nine students fled — Jesse was shot in the head.
Jesse, 6, is among the more than 144 people who have been killed in school shootings since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, a moment that solidified public alarm about gun rampages at places of learning. The victims have left behind parents and siblings, part of a grim club that none of them wanted to join. Their stories present a central question about America's mass shooting epidemic — how people who knew and loved the victims cope with their pain, perhaps even channeling it into new endeavors.
Jesse's brother, now 19 and a rising sophomore at the University of Connecticut, is channeling his pain into politics.
JT Lewis launched a campaign on Monday for state Senate, vying to represent a district that includes Newtown, along with several other towns in southwestern Connecticut. The college student is an avid supporter of President Trump, who he hopes will gain four more years in 2020 as he aims to claim his own term in office.
Although he faces an uphill battle, he would not be the youngest state lawmaker in history. A handful of 18-year-olds have been elected to state offices, and, in Connecticut specifically, a 20-year-old politician, and onetime Republican, joined the legislature in 2015, serving for just two years. (Aundré Bumgardner has since left the GOP because of Trump.)
"I'm not doing this to break a record," Lewis said in an interview with The Washington Post. "I'm doing it to make sure my brother's story is told as many times as possible."
Lewis appears to be the first family member of a Newtown victim to run for elected office. More than six years after the killing rampage, the episode remains a touchstone — the deadliest mass shooting at a high school or grade school in American history.
Parents of Newtown victims have been engaged in charged political, if not electoral, battles, centering on efforts to stamp out conspiracy theories about their children's deaths.
Political reverberations of the shooting last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., have been even more pronounced — and not only because of the advocacy of the teenage students. Two parents ran for seats on the school board last summer. One of them won.
Now, former astronaut Mark Kelly, the husband of former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, is seeking a U.S. Senate seat from Arizona. Giffords was shot in the head in an assassination attempt in 2011, turning the lawmaker and her husband, both Democrats, into outspoken exponents of gun control.
And Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., whose 17-year-old son died in 2012 at the end of a gun barrel, now sits in Congress, having prevailed in last year's midterm elections on a platform of combating gun violence. McBath entered politics by way of a network of black women brought together because their children had lost their lives either to gun violence or as a result of confrontations with police. The women became a potent force on behalf of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, which christened them the "Mothers of the Movement," cutting ads featuring their testimony and flying them to the Democratic primary debates.
The movement embraced by JT Lewis is different. He is a Republican and a Trump supporter, making him an outlier in his age demographic, as well as among the clutch of people inspired to enter politics because of gun violence.
As an advocate for school security — favoring efforts to install bulletproof glass and increase the presence of armed guards over tightening gun rules — Lewis represents a notable contrast with some of the most prominent voices that have emerged from the so-called mass shooting generation. Their testimony, which gained widespread attention after the shooting in Parkland, Fla., has featured pleas for gun control joined to condemnations of Republicans friendly with the National Rifle Association. Some of the Parkland teenagers have spoken out against intensifying security at their high school, which David Hogg, a survivor and activist, said was beginning to feel like a prison.
Lewis is also fed up with politicians, but his ire isn't aimed at one party alone; he thinks elected leaders in general have failed.
"They show up to events to take pictures, and that's the end of the story," Lewis said. "I'm absolutely sick and tired of that."
The 19-year-old wants to unseat an incumbent Republican and residential real estate agent who, he claims, ignored his family's appeals when he was elected in 2014.
Lewis said his mother, Scarlett, attempted to contact the freshly minted state senator, Tony Hwang, about an initiative promoting social and emotional learning in classrooms. Calls by his mother, as well as his grandfather, went unanswered, Lewis said.
In 2018, as Hwang, was gearing up for reelection, Lewis saw an ad on Facebook that touted the candidate's commitment to community.
"And I thought, 'He didn't do anything for us,' " Lewis said. "We had just lost a sibling and son. He didn't even return our call."
After the teenager commented on the ad, expressing his dismay, a message from the lawmaker arrived in his inbox, apologizing for having "dropped the ball" and asking for a phone number and email address.
"Typical politician," Lewis said.
In a statement, Hwang, 54, said he was a state representative for a district that did not include Newtown at the time of the shooting in 2012, before he was elected to the upper chamber in 2014. He pledged to "continue to do all I can to be a voice our constituents can be proud of."
"I will always rise above accusations and political negatives," the incumbent added.
Lewis was born and raised in Newtown. Before his mother became involved in advocacy work, she worked for a telecommunications company. An elder brother works as a police officer in New Jersey.
Lewis is a football player. He made the team for the University of Connecticut, where he is a political science major, but won't continue in order to focus on his campaign.
He has repressed much of what happened the day of the shooting, which comes back to him in interrupted images - Spanish class, the SWAT uniforms, the fire station where he learned of his brother's death.
Influential in his political ambitions were opportunities to speak with President Barack Obama in the direct wake of the tragedy, and then with Trump years later. He praised Obama for spending time with each family, "just connecting with us."
But Trump's response to learning about his little brother was no less humane, Lewis said.
Lewis and his mother attended a roundtable discussion on school security with the president and members of his Cabinet in December. A 177-page report issued at the event recommended that schools consider arming staff, among other measures, while eschewing proposals to crack down on gun purchases.
Research spanning 18 years casts doubt on the effectiveness of hardening schools, even warning that these measures can create a "false sense of security."
But Lewis said efforts to introduce new controls on guns have also not been successful.
"In the 20 years since Columbine, the predominant amount of time has been spent on gun control, and we still have shooting today," he said. "If there had been an armed guard at Sandy Hook, I'm pretty sure my brother would be alive."
Although he counts himself as a supporter of the Second Amendment, he said he would be open to compromise on measures that enjoy the overwhelming support of the public.
After the meeting in the Roosevelt Room, Trump invited Lewis back to the Oval Office, where the two laughed together and "had a good time," the 19-year-old recalled.
"Because of that personal connection, I have to support him," he said. "Some of the rhetoric needs to be toned down, but he is our president, so he deserves our respect."
He praised Trump's handling of the economy, which he predicted would be the basis for his reelection next year.
Lewis is hoping to jump on that bandwagon. As he prepared to launch his campaign, he used Twitter to seek the attention of Trump associates, including White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and Ivanka Trump, the first daughter and adviser.
The president's daughter noticed, posting a tweet of support for Lewis and his family.
There was sympathy on the other side of the aisle, too, and not just for the personal story recounted by Lewis. It was unclear if she knew which party the candidate favored when Stephanie Cutter, a former senior aide in the Obama White House, asked on Twitter, "Where do we donate!"
Perhaps most important, however, the teenage candidate secured the endorsement of his mother.