Photo credit: DCStockPhotography / Shutterstock.com
Like most Republicans, on the evening of Thursday, July 21, Congressman Lee Zeldin was not watching the prime-time televised hearing of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol. Instead, Zeldin, a Long Island native running for Governor of New York against incumbent Democrat Kathy Hochul, was campaigning in Fairport, a small village of fewer than 6,000 people in Monroe County, about nine miles east of Rochester and near the Canadian border.
Fairport should have been a safe space for Zeldin: it’s a solidly Republican town that sits in the heavily Democratic 25th Congressional district, where he should be able to pick up a good margin. Although Democrat Joe Morelle, first elected to Congress from the 25th in 2018, retained his seat in 2020 by over 20 points, Donald Trump won Fairport in 2020 by a comfortable seven.
But statistically, Fairport is also genuinely safe. Known as the “Crown Jewel of the Erie Canal,” it’s a pretty little town where, according to real estate data, the crime rate has been falling for five years. Although I can’t find data before 2006, it has registered no murders and never logs more than four assaults a year (in 2018, there were none, and in 2019, there was one.)
And yet, this is where Zeldin, while talking to a small crowd of voters last Thursday, was physically attacked in front of a small gathering of voters. Forty-three-year-old David Jakubonis, a Fairport resident, climbed onto the truck bed parked in front of the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall where Zeldin was speaking. Jakubonis then grabbed Zeldin by the arm, swung a sharp object at him, and repeated: “you’re done” several times as he pulled Zeldin to the ground, where various supporters, including aspiring lieutenant governor Alison Esposito, intervened and held onto Jakobonis until the police arrived.
Zeldin might have reasonably understood the attack as an assassination attempt. I understood it that way when the news alert popped up on my phone as I tweeted the J6 Hearings. So did President Joe Biden and New York Governor Kathy Hochul, Zeldin’s Democratic opponent: both were quick to condemn the attack. MAGA media outlets, including Fox & Friends, responded graciously by accusing the Hochul campaign, which had tweeted Zeldin’s schedule, of encouraging Democratic partisans to stalk him.
But as the story unfolded, things got more interesting.
At 1:30 a.m., as authorities were processing Jakubonis, Zeldin’s official Twitter account noted the prompt arrival of law enforcement and announced that “The attacker will likely be instantly released under NY’s laws.” For those who don’t know, the state no longer has cash bail for crimes below a certain level of seriousness, a progressive policy that Republican candidates across the state, Zeldin included, claim is responsible for the uptick in crime.
Jakubonis was released after being arraigned, as current New York State law requires. However, he was re-arrested the following day on federal charges since it is a felony to attack a Congressman. He is now being held without bail.
It should go without saying that I deplore violence, and I particularly deplore political violence. Yet Jakubonis may be precisely the sort of person New York’s cashless bail laws were designed to help. He has been described by multiple sources as an Iraq war veteran in the grip of mental illness, unemployed, drunk that night, and suffering from chronic alcoholism. He is also said to be a widower whose emotional spiral following his wife’s death caused him to lose custody of his children.
Jakubonis is also poor. Poor people who cannot pay bail are more likely to plead out whether they committed a crime or not. Moreover, pretrial detention can last for months or years, and there is no guarantee that the public defender representing you and 3000 others will have the resources to exonerate you. Yet, one 2018 study showed that 95% of indigent defendants were either judged not guilty or received a noncriminal disposition when bailed out by nonprofits.
In addition, although fewer than 5% of crimes in the United States are committed by the mentally ill, people with serious mental illness and substance abuse disorders are heavily overrepresented in pretrial detention and prison. Being released pending trial can literally be lifesaving for people with mental disorders. They deteriorate while incarcerated, putting them at greater risk of death in a place where rates of suicide are sharply elevated. Mentally ill people are subjected to routine violence by prison guards, “including being doused with chemical sprays, shocked with electronic stun guns and strapped for hours to chairs or beds.”
Jakubonis appears to have spontaneously decided to engage Zeldin, having wandered by the event while drunk. According to one unsubstantiated report, he “only approached [Zeldin] to try to take his microphone after he was told” [emphasis mine] that “the gubernatorial candidate was ‘disrespecting veterans.’” Furthermore, as David Porter of the Associated Press writes, when asked, “Jakubonis`did not know who the speaker was or that the speaker was a political person.’” He also may have been blackout drunk. The complaint against him notes “that when Jakubonis watched video of Thursday evening’s incident he told investigators he `must have checked out’ and that what was depicted in the video was disgusting.”
But this has not kept a Republican party bent on distracting from the January 6 hearings, which included threats to assassinate politicians and the systematic beating of Capitol police by trained militia, from demanding justice for Lee Zeldin. Jakubonis has been described as “a knife-wielding army vet” by several right-wing sites, swinging “a knuckle-duster style blade.”
As you can see in the photograph above, the weapon turned out to be a plastic My Kitty self-defense key ring fob.
For obvious reasons, this is not the first-choice weapon for a violent assassin. Intended to cause pain, not death, the My Kitty is an improvement on old-school feminist self-defense advice: grip your keys in your fist, with two keys sticking out between your fingers so you can poke an attacker in the eyes and rake it down his face.
The Zeldin campaign is also using this incident to demonstrate that the candidate is physically “tough”: the campaign tweeted the photo at the top of this post as if Zeldin was firmly holding off his attacker until help arrived. In fact, the two quickly fell over. You can see the whole awkward struggle here:
Although the incident was regrettable, and should never have happened, was Zeldin in real danger? No. Is David Jakubonis an actual assassin? No.
Unsurprisingly, however, Zeldin’s campaign manager Katie Vincentz also used the attack as an opportunity to point to one of Zeldin’s signature campaign issues: crime. “Far more must be done to make NY safe again,” she tweeted. “This is very much getting out of hand in this state. Unfortunately, Congressman Zeldin is just the latest N[ew] Y[orker] whose life has been affected by the out-of-control crime and violence in New York. This needs to stop! Thankfully, we still have exceptional men and women in law enforcement answering the call to protect our streets.”
But here is an interesting coincidence: this event occurred only six days after over a fifth of the signatures on Zeldin’s petition to be included on the Independence Party ballot line were disqualified, bringing him below the 45,000 needed. Why? Because somebody just duplicated 13 pages of signatures and hoped no one at the Election Board would notice. A spokesperson for the campaign responded to a journalist’s query by saying that they had not reviewed the situation, but “if anyone had submitted pages upon pages of photocopied signatures, it certainly wasn’t them.”
Well, who was it? Hunter Biden? Hillary Clinton? I mean, come on.
So there’s that. Second, is it also a coincidence that a scuffle designed to trigger breaking news alerts occurred during the final televised hearing from the J6 Committee? A hearing that documented, minute by minute, that—as the MAGA faithful was sacking the Capitol, police savagely beaten, with militia members hunting members of Congress and threatening to “hang Mike Pence”—Donald Trump was not only refusing to call off the mob but phoning Senators to keep delaying the electoral count until supporters could get fake delegations to Washington?
Loony as this may sound, I don’t think this event is just a coincidence from which the campaign made political hay. Why? Because Lee Zeldin is among Donald Trump’s most loyal people. Let me explain.
As Margaret Hartmann of New York Magazine reminds us:
Representative Lee Zeldin, the Republican nominee for governor of New York, went all-in on Donald Trump’s scheme to steal the 2020 election. In December 2020, he joined 124 of his House Republican colleagues in filing an amicus brief encouraging the Supreme Court to nullify Joe Biden’s win in four states. On the night of January 6, 2021, hours after the Capitol riot, Zeldin delivered a speech (one analysis deemed it “deficient in facts”), which alleged that there had been rampant voter fraud in several states Biden won. Later that night, Zeldin voted against certifying the election results from Arizona and Pennsylvania.
And not only is Lee Zeldin a certified election denier, but according to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), in late June, Zeldin met with a Long Island chapter of the Oath Keepers. This private militia, we now know, helped to organize and lead the insurrection on January 6, using the mass of MAGA faithful as storm troopers.
Zeldin’s sit-down with the Oath Keepers isn’t just an accusation: his campaign admits and defends it because they are just another group of constituents. On July 3, Zeldin spokeswoman Jennifer DiSiena described the militia to the New York Daily News as “one of many groups
`representing all sides of the ideological spectrum,’ including the Sierra Club and SEIU, with which Zeldin met to discuss trade legislation.
“It is completely absurd to make it a litmus test for a member of Congress to agree with every individual or group 100% in order to meet with them,” DeSiena said.
Just like the Sierra Club and SEIU! Who, weirdly, have never tried to overthrow a legally-constituted government, threaten to hang the Vice President for standing in the way of a coup d’etat organized by a defeated POTUS, or performed any other acts of individual or mass violence.
So let’s be clear: I am against political violence—but Lee Zeldin is not. And since the attack, unfortunate as it was, is now being used as a distraction from all kinds of things that Zeldin doesn’t want his voters to think about, I would also like to know more about how it happened in the first place, and why the timing was so coincidental with a moment that definitively linked the head of the Republican Party to seditious violence. Who in the crowd told a passing, drunk veteran that Zeldin was “disrespecting” him and his brothers? How did Jakubonis end up with a My Kitty self-defense fob in his fist?
Because you know the other thing that is becoming apparent about Lee Zeldin? He’s a serial liar and cheater. Would he go so far as to organize an attack on himself? I admit it’s hard to imagine.
But January 6 was hard to imagine too. And it happened.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This essay first appeared on her Substack, Political Junkie.