ALBANY — Rep. Lee Zeldin returned to the campaign trail Friday, slamming New York’s bail laws after being attacked by a man with a sharp object a day earlier.
The Republican gubernatorial candidate hoping to unseat Gov. Hochul railed against the state’s cashless bail system and the fact that his alleged assailant was released hours after the frightening incident.
“You just can’t be going around trying to stab, not just members of Congress, but anybody, for that matter,” Zeldin told radio station 1010 WINS during a break between rallies. “I believe you shouldn’t just be instantly released.”
The Long Island lawmaker was onstage speaking to supporters outside of a VFW post in Fairport, near Rochester, around 8 p.m. on Thursday when a man with a weapon in his hand approached him, swung the object towards Zeldin’s neck, and repeatedly told him, “You’re done,” according to police.
“The first thing I saw was that he was wearing a hat that said he was a veteran,” Zeldin said during a press conference Friday near Syracuse. “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.”
The Monroe County Sheriff’s office said that the congressman’s alleged attacker, 43-year-old David Jakubonis, “exhibited signs of intoxication and indicated he had been drinking.”
Jakubonis, an Army veteran who was deployed to Iraq in 2009 as a medical laboratory technician, was arraigned and released on attempted assault charges.
He told The New York Times that is dealing with alcoholism and anxiety and claims he had “checked out,” did not know who Zeldin was and only tried to grab the microphone after someone told him the candidate was “disrespecting veterans.”
[ Rep. Lee Zeldin, GOP nominee for N.Y. governor, attacked at campaign event near Rochester ]
Video published by WHEC-TV of the incident shows a man wearing sunglasses and a green Iraqi veteran hat clutching what appears to be a plastic, cat-shaped keychain with pointy ears as he approached Zeldin on stage.
He can be seen moving the brass knuckle-like device with a pair of sharp points toward Zeldin’s neck before onlookers, including GOP lieutenant governor candidate and former NYPD deputy inspector Alison Esposito, pulled the man, and Zeldin, to the ground.
The candidate returned to the stage and continued his speech after the assault.
President Biden was among those who condemned the attack.
“As I’ve said before, violence has absolutely no place in our society or our politics,” he said in a statement. “I am especially grateful for the courage of those who immediately intervened, and that he is unharmed and was able to continue his speech.”
In a statement, Hochul denounced the attack and said she was “relieved to hear that Congressman Zeldin was not injured and that the suspect is in custody.”
Zeldin, meanwhile, had predicted overnight in a tweet that his alleged attacker would be freed following the incident.
“His words as he tried to stab me a few hours ago were ‘you’re done,’ but several attendees, including @EspositoforNY, quickly jumped into action & tackled the guy,” Zeldin wrote early Friday. “Law enforcement was on the scene within minutes. The attacker will likely be instantly released under NY’s laws.”
The congressman, who is an Army reservist, has made crime and New York’s bail laws central to his campaign as he seeks to defeat Hochul, the incumbent Democrat running for a full term in office after replacing disgraced governor Andrew Cuomo last summer.
Zeldin and other Republicans in the Empire State have derided bail reforms initially enacted in 2019 and twice tweaked by the Dem-led Legislature as soft-on-crime.
The reforms limit pretrial incarceration for people accused of most nonviolent offenses.
Critics, however, believe judges should have the discretion to remand people they believe to be dangerous.
Since the charge against Jakubonis was attempted assault, a class E felony, it does not qualify for bail. The Monroe Sheriff’s Office did say Friday that additional criminal charges are possible.
Jakubonis is due back in court on Aug. 30.
Assemblywoman Latrice Walker (D-Brooklyn), a lead sponsor of the original bail reforms, condemned the incident but railed against Republicans for politicizing the issue.
“I’m glad he wasn’t injured. But, to use this incident as part of an effort to undo deeply necessary civil rights legislation is unacceptable and his politicized focus on bail reform is a distraction from real solutions,” she said. “The safest communities are those with the most resources, not the highest incarceration rates.”
On Friday, Zeldin cast the state’s lax bail laws as a disservice not only to law-abiding citizens, but also to those accused of committing crimes, including his alleged attacker.
He said the limits on pre-rial detention mean that courts aren’t able to connect those who are suffering from mental illness or other issues with the proper services.
“They have to rush to get him released,” he said. “Where’s the help for them in that process.”
New York Republican Party chairman Nick Langworthy, meanwhile, called on Hochul to issue a security detail for Zeldin as he continues on the campaign trail ahead of November’s general election.
“This could have gone a lot worse. This could have really ended in a horrible way tonight and this is unacceptable,” he said.