A man was charged with attempted assault after he swung a sharp object at Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), the Republican candidate in the New York gubernatorial contest, during a campaign event Thursday night.
Zeldin later said that he was unharmed. He returned to the stage "to finish his remarks and thank the law enforcement officers who responded to the scene,” said Katie Vincentz, a spokeswoman for Zeldin.
The incident could fuel ongoing concerns about the rise in violence directed at public figures during a time of heightened political division. Last month, a man with a gun and a knife was arrested near the home of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, and the mayor of Louisville, Ky., was punched during a parade.
The suspect in Thursday’s attack was identified as David Jakubonis, a 43-year old from Fairport, N.Y., Jakubonis was taken into custody, arraigned and released on his own recognizance, according to a statement from the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. He pleaded not guilty and was represented by the public defender’s office, police said. The motive for the assault remains unclear.
Jakubonis told police he had been drinking and showed signs of intoxication. He is a U.S. Army veteran who was deployed to Iraq in 2009 as a laboratory technician, the Associated Press reported.
“Political scores should be settled at the ballot box, not on stage at campaign events,” Zeldin wrote on Twitter early Friday.
President Biden condemned the attack on Zeldin “in the strongest terms” in a statement released Friday. “Violence has absolutely no place in our society or our politics," Biden said. He expressed gratitude to those who subdued the suspect and to law enforcement officers for their quick response.
Zeldin is waging an uphill battle to unseat Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) in November. New York’s electorate is heavily Democratic and Hochul is viewed favorably by Democrats.
Hochul immediately condemned Thursday’s attack. She was “relieved to hear that Congressman Zeldin was not injured and the suspect was in custody,” Hochul wrote on Twitter. “I condemn this violent behavior in the strongest terms possible.”
Polls show that a large majority of voters in the state, regardless of their political persuasion, are concerned about crime and public safety.
Zeldin has made the issue a focus of his campaign. Moments before the attacker stepped on to the stage on Thursday, Zeldin was saying that New York residents were increasingly leaving for places like Florida and Texas because they felt “safer” and “freer” there.
Police said the weapon used in the attack was a hardened plastic keychain with two sharp points that is designed for self-defense. It was shaped like a cat’s head, according to photos from the scene, and can be worn on a person’s knuckles.
A judge ordered that any firearms be removed from Jakubonis’s home, but no guns were found when police searched the residence in the hours after the attack, the sheriff’s office said. Jakubonis is due to return to court on Aug. 30.
The charge facing Jakubonis — attempted assault — is not an offense where suspects can be held pending bail under New York law. The suspect’s immediate release prompted outrage in some quarters. The sheriff’s office said additional criminal charges are possible and that it was in contact with the FBI to discuss potential federal charges.
Zeldin, who represents eastern Long Island, is a pro-Trump Republican who voted against certifying President Biden’s win in the 2020 presidential elections. He is a four-term congressman and a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve. Zeldin revealed last year that he was in remission from chronic myeloid leukemia.
In Staten Island last month, 39-year-old grocery store worker Daniel Gill was charged with third-degree assault and menacing, both misdemeanors, as well as second-degree harassment, after he touched Rudy Giuliani — the 78-year-old former Republican mayor of New York — on the back and called him a “scumbag,” according to police.
Gill was initially charged with assaulting someone over the age of 65, a felony. Giuliani claimed he could have fallen and “probably cracked my skull” after the contact. Gill’s defense team said Gill had patted Giuliani. Video of the incident published by the New York Post appears to show Gill touching Giuliani more lightly than the former mayor asserted.