NEW YORK – U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, the Republican candidate for New York governor, said Friday he wasn't immediately alarmed when a stranger joined him onstage during a campaign rally because the man wore a hat indicating that, like Zeldin, he'd served in the military.
Then Zeldin noticed the man was clutching a pointed weapon, headed straight toward the congressman’s neck.
“You’re done,” the man said.
At that moment, Zeldin said, "regardless of whatever’s on your hat, this was not a normal situation and there needed to be action taken,” recounting the Thursday evening attack in western New York.
Zeldin grabbed the man's wrist, and the two tussled to the ground as other people jumped in to help. The episode left Zeldin with a minor scrape. Photos of the pointed object used in the attack suggest it's a cat-shaped keychain meant to be worn on the knuckles for self defense.
The man, identified as 43-year-old David Jakubonis, has been charged with attempted assault for attacking Zeldin as he addressed a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in the town of Perinton, outside Rochester. The attacker had climbed onto the low stage as the congressman addressed a crowd of dozens, flanked by bales of hay and American flags.
Zeldin is seeking to unseat incumbent Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul this November, and has focused his campaign on calling for a crackdown on crime. An Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, he has represented eastern Long Island in Congress since 2015.
But he 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. He is a staunch ally former President Donald Trump and was among the Republicans in Congress who voted against certifying the 2020 election results, both of which are not expected to help him in the blue state.
In a statement, Hochul condemned the attack and said she was “relieved to hear that Congressman Zeldin was not injured.”
President Joe Biden also denounced the incident and said it “defies our fundamental democratic values.”
“As I’ve said before, violence has absolutely no place in our society or our politics. I am especially grateful for the courage of those who immediately intervened, and that he is unharmed and was able to continue his speech,” the president said in a statement.
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 he 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.
Zeldin said Friday at an event in Syracuse that he was grateful for everyone who jumped in to help.
Jacob Murphy, a spokesperson for Zeldin's congressional office, said that Zeldin had a minor scrape from the incident. He said Zeldin had private security for the Thursday event but would start having increased security.
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. State Police spokesman Beau Duffy said the agency contacted the Zeldin campaign on Friday and was discussing his security.
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.
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.”
It’s up to law enforcement to decide whether to charge someone with a crime that could lead to a judge holding them behind bars. A representative at the Monroe County district attorney's office said Friday that the sheriff’s office had filed the criminal complaint for the second-degree attempted assault charge.
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, Karen Matthews in New York, Chris Megerian in Washington and news researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.