U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin attacked on stage at New York campaign event

·4 min read

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin was attacked on Thursday night by a man wielding a sharp object at a campaign event near Rochester, New York, officials said.

Zeldin, the Republican candidate for New York governor, was uninjured, and no other injuries were reported.

In video of the attack, a man can be seen onstage with Zeldin, grabbing his arm before they fall to the ground.

"You're done," the man can be heard repeating in the assault, which unfolded at around 8 p.m. at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Perinton.

The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office identified the suspect as David Jakubonis, 43.

NY GOP Candidate for Governor Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-NY, top right, is protected as others apprehend a man who attacked Zeldin on Thursday. (Courtesy Jeff Nichols)
NY GOP Candidate for Governor Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-NY, top right, is protected as others apprehend a man who attacked Zeldin on Thursday. (Courtesy Jeff Nichols)

The attack ended after the suspect was restrained by people in the audience as well as members of Zeldin's campaign, video recorded by NBC affiliate WHEC of Rochester shows.

In the attack, the man appeared to be holding an object with two protruding points. The sheriff’s office statement did not say what kind of weapon it was, but a witness who helped to tackle the suspect said it was a plastic keychain in the shape of a cat's face with pointy ears — typically sold as a self-defense instrument.

"I couldn't see the weapon at first. I thought the guy was going up on stage to give him a hug," said Joe Chenelly, who had been standing to the side of the platform where Zeldin was speaking. "Then I thought it looked like a razor blade."

Chenelly said he was among a group of people who rushed to Zeldin's aid once the man appeared to become violent.

Jakubonis, of Fairport, is charged with attempted assault in the second degree, a felony, and was arraigned at Perinton Town Court and released on his own recognizance, the sheriff’s office said in a statement.

Zeldin later tweeted his thanks to everyone who reached out, writing in part, "Someone tried to stab me on stage during this evening’s rally, but fortunately, I was able to grab his wrist and stop him for a few moments until others tackled him."

The man was subdued and restrained with zip ties, and police arrived, handcuffed him and took him into custody, Mike Cialini, commander of VFW Post 8495, said in an interview.

"No motive, no nothing. Once he was subdued, he was making sounds. They were just weird noises," Cialini, who said he witnessed the incident, said.

Chenelly, a Republican running for a New York State Assembly seat, said he spoke to the suspect after he was restrained and the man told him he was an Iraq War combat veteran. Jakubonis is seen in videos of the incident wearing an Iraq War veteran hat.

Chenelly, who is also the national director of the nonprofit organization AMVETS, said the suspect was mostly incoherent and his behavior appeared indicative of someone experiencing mental health issues.

"We're reaching out to him in case he needs help," Chenelly said Friday.

Efforts to reach Jakubonis were not immediately successful and it was unclear if he had an attorney.

According to law enforcement sources, the suspect is a veteran, there is no known motive, and investigators are looking into whether he has a history of alcohol abuse and anxiety.

During a campaign stop outside of Syracuse, Zeldin told reporters Friday that his guard was down when he saw the man's hat, but then he noticed a weapon in his hand with "dagger-like edges."

"When he lifted up his hand and he was lunging for my throat area, my first thought was to grab onto his wrist and hold it because there were so many people around that I would have expected there to be help," Zeldin said. "And that's what happened."

Several people joined "the fray," Zeldin said, including his running mate for lieutenant governor, Alison Esposito.

"There were a lot of people who acted very smartly and I'm very proud of that response in what was a really difficult moment," Zeldin said.

He also denounced how the suspect was allowed released from jail overnight, part of a larger critique against Democrats' efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system in New York, which Zeldin has argued has led to an uptick in violence.

"What we saw last night as an example, just the latest example, is that the attacker on stage was immediately released due to cashless bail, charged with a felony," Zeldin said.

New York GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy said Zeldin was "targeted in a violent attack at a campaign rally stop in Monroe County," and he hailed the actions of bystanders who subdued the man.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, said she was relieved that Zeldin was not hurt and the suspect was in custody.

"I condemn this violent behavior in the strongest terms possible — it has no place in New York," she tweeted.

Zeldin, of Suffolk County on Long Island, was a state senator and was elected to Congress in 2014.

He won the Republican primary for New York governor in June, beating a trio of opponents, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s son Andrew Giuliani. Zeldin will face Hochul in November’s gubernatorial election.

Thursday's campaign event was being hosted at the VFW Post 8495, Cialini said, but the organization is apolitical.