Lee Zeldin, GOP nominee for NY governor, attacked at rally
New York — A man has been charged with attempted assault after brandishing a sharp object and attacking U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin as the Republican candidate for New York governor delivered a speech in western New York.
The incident happened Thursday as Zeldin, who is challenging incumbent Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul this November, was addressing a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in the town of Perinton, outside Rochester.
The attacker climbed onto a low stage where the congressman spoke to a crowd of dozens, flanked by bales of hay and American flags.
Zeldin said at a news conference in the Syracuse area Friday that he saw the man in his periphery on stage.
“The first thing I saw was that he was wearing a hat that said he was a veteran,” he said. “And my guard couldn’t possibly be more dropped. But at the same exact time, I noticed that he had a weapon in his hand.”
He said the man was saying, “You’re done,” to him.
“And obviously in that point, regardless of whatever’s on your hat, this was not a normal situation and there needed to be action taken,” he said.
Videos taken by people in the audience showed the man walk up to Zeldin and try to grab him, bringing a pointed object shaped like a cat’s head toward Zeldin’s neck as he reached for the congressman. Photos of the object suggested it was a keychain meant to be worn on the knuckles for self defense.
People at the gathering held down the attacker and he was arrested. Among those subduing the man was Zeldin's running mate, former New York Police Department Deputy Inspector Alison Esposito.
David Jakubonis, 43, was charged with attempted assault in the second degree, arraigned and then released, a Monroe County sheriff’s spokesperson said. It’s not clear whether Jakubonis has an attorney who can speak for him. A message seeking comment was left at a number listed for Jakubonis.
Jakubonis is an Army veteran who was deployed to Iraq in 2009 as a medical laboratory technician.
The congressman said his “first thought was to grab onto his wrist and just to hold it because there were so many people that I would expect there to be help. And that’s what happened.”
He said he was grateful for everyone who jumped in to help.
Zeldin finished his remarks after Jakubonis was subdued, saying Friday it was important “not to be intimidated.”
Jacob Murphy, a spokesperson for Zeldin's congressional office, said that Zeldin had a minor scrape from the incident. He said Zeldin had not received any specific threats recently.
He also said Zeldin had private security for the Perinton event but would start having increased security.
In a statement, Hochul condemned the attack and said she was “relieved to hear that Congressman Zeldin was not injured and that the suspect is in custody.”
New York Republican State Committee Chairman Nick Langworthy called on Hochul to issue a security detail for Zeldin to protect him on the campaign trail.
Hochul’s press secretary Avi Small referred questions about providing Zeldin with a security detail to New York state police.
Zeldin, an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel who has represented eastern Long Island in Congress since 2015, is a staunch ally of former President Donald Trump and was among the Republicans in Congress who voted against certifying the 2020 election results.
He has focused his campaign on calling for a crackdown on crime but faces an uphill battle against Hochul. He'll need to persuade independent voters — which outnumber Republicans in the state — as well as Democrats in order to win the general election.
Zeldin and fellow Republicans pointed to Jakubonis’ release by a Perinton Town Court judge as an example of the need to reform New York's bail laws, something he's called on Hochul to toughen.
“It is terrible public policy that in the state of New York, you can try to stab a sitting member of Congress, or anyone else for that matter, and be back out on the street not even 6 hours later,” Zeldin's campaign spokeswoman Katie Vincentz said in a statement.
A 2019 bail reform law in New York eliminated pretrial incarceration for people accused of most nonviolent offenses. The law gives judges the option to set bail in nearly all cases involving violent felonies, but has exceptions for certain attempted felonies like attempted assault.
Judges must also consider someone’s ability to pay bail, and weigh imposing other conditions like travel restrictions, electronic monitoring or limits on weapons possessions.
Amid calls from Republicans and some Democrats to toughen the law, Hochul this year signed a measure to allow someone to be held on bail for hate crimes and additional gun offenses, and give judges more discretion in deciding bail if a person is facing multiple charges. Judges who set bail must also weigh factors like an individual’s history of using guns, whether they are accused of causing “serious harm” and if they violated an order of protection.
Perinton Town Court senior clerk Betsy Wager said under the state law, “The judge had no choice but to release him on his own recognizance.”
Hochul's office did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on whether she's considering more changes to the state's bail laws.
Associated Press reporters Marina Villeneuve in Albany and Karen Matthews in New York, and news researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.