An attempted assault on Representative Lee Zeldin, the Republican candidate for governor of New York, inflamed a fierce debate over the state’s public safety laws on Friday, hours after a man accused of charging the candidate with a pointed weapon was released without bail.
Mr. Zeldin has long made public safety a centerpiece of his campaign against Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat. But he and his allies argued on Friday that the episode viscerally drove home the need to increase policing and tighten New York’s bail laws to make it easier for judges to hold people charged with certain crimes.
“Only in Kathy Hochul’s New York could a maniac violently attack a candidate for Governor and then be released without bail,” Nick Langworthy, the New York Republican Party chairman, wrote on Twitter. “This is what happens when you destroy the criminal justice system.”
The attack took place Thursday night outside a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall near Rochester, where Mr. Zeldin was holding the first in a series of weekend campaign stops. As the candidate was discussing public safety and rising costs of living, a man, who was later identified by the police as David G. Jakubonis, slowly approached him.
Video footage of the encounter showed Mr. Jakubonis wielding a pointed plastic self-defense tool shaped like the face of a cartoon cat as he lunged at Mr. Zeldin. Mr. Jakubonis can be heard on video repeatedly saying, “You’re done.”
Mr. Zeldin, a four-term congressman from Long Island, was not injured. Others, including his running mate, the former New York City police officer Alison Esposito, rushed the stage and wrestled the man to the ground.
Mr. Jakubonis, 43, of Fairport, N.Y., was charged with attempted assault in the second degree, according to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, and released on his own recognizance. Since 2020, under New York law, judges have been barred from setting bail on the charge of attempted assault, a nonviolent felony; previously, prosecutors would have had the option to request that Mr. Jakubonis be held on bail.
Mr. Jakubonis, a U.S. Army veteran who had deployed to Iraq, said on Friday that he did not know who Mr. Zeldin was or that he was running for governor. In a disjointed interview outside his apartment in suburban Rochester, he said he approached Mr. Zeldin, an Army reservist, to try to take his microphone after someone told him that Mr. Zeldin was “disrespecting veterans.”
Mr. Jakubonis, a graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology, said that he was battling a relapse of alcoholism and was being treated for anxiety. He described his mental state on Thursday night as “checked out,” adding that he had fallen “asleep within” himself.
He suggested the cat-shaped object he held was intended for self-defense. “The ears are plastic, but I guess they’re sharp,” he said in the interview on Friday afternoon. “Then I was tackled.”
Voter registration records indicated that he was not affiliated with a political party and a LinkedIn page that appeared to belong to him indicated he had been “actively seeking employment” for years.
Republicans wasted little time in claiming that the attack — and Mr. Jakubonis’s release — demonstrated the failure of the bail law enacted by Democrats in recent years. And they sought to use it to press an advantage in New York congressional races, as well.
Mr. Zeldin continued his planned campaign bus tour around the state on Friday, albeit with increased security. At a stop in Jordan, N.Y., outside of Syracuse, Mr. Zeldin sharply criticized Ms. Hochul for not pushing harder for changes to the state’s bail laws, and vowed to defeat her in November, despite Democrats’ overwhelming electoral advantages in New York.
“What I propose is we repeal cashless bail, that judges are given discretion to weigh dangerousness, flight risk, past criminal record and the seriousness of the offense,” Mr. Zeldin said at a news conference. He said he would also look to establish a way to prevent lenient judges from letting potentially dangerous criminal defendants return to the streets.
Ms. Hochul, who is traveling in California for a Democratic Governors Association retreat in Santa Monica, condemned the attack Thursday night. On Friday, her campaign referred questions to the governor’s office, which did not respond to a request for comment about the state’s bail laws.
President Biden also denounced the attempted attack. “As I’ve said before, violence has absolutely no place in our society or our politics,” he said.
The arguments over the attack’s implications in New York were the latest flashpoint in a long-running dispute over the state’s public safety program and the effect of recent changes to the bail law.
Democrats undertook the changes, which went into effect in January 2020 and have been amended twice since then, to try to prevent people from being held in jail for relatively minor offenses because they are unable to post bail. More serious offenses, including violent crimes, are still eligible for bail under the law.
Researchers say and data shows that there is no evidence the law is responsible for the recent rise in certain crimes across the state. And rearrest rates — which could indicate whether the law had contributed to crime rates — have stayed steady.
But as certain crimes have become more commonplace, the overall number of those charged, released and then rearrested on a separate crime has risen, giving opponents of the statute — including Republicans and some Democrats, like Mayor Eric Adams of New York City — a plethora of examples with which to attack it.
Mindful of her party’s divide over the issue, Ms. Hochul has tried to chart a middle course, preferring to discuss her plans to fight gun violence over questions of bail reform.
She did successfully push for modest changes to the bail law in this year’s sprawling state budget, including new language that directs judges to consider whether a defendant is accused of seriously harming another person or has a history of gun use when setting bail. Progressives objected, while Republicans and moderates like Mr. Adams said the changes did not go far enough.
In the case of Mr. Jakubonis, the Monroe County district attorney could have chosen to charge him with a violent felony, which would have qualified the case for potential bail, and pushed to keep him behind bars.
A spokeswoman for Sandra Doorley, the district attorney, declined to comment on whether bail would have been sought in a similar case under the law before 2020. The spokeswoman also said that Ms. Doorley, who is a co-chair of Mr. Zeldin’s campaign, would recuse herself from the case.
Some Democrats contended that the nonviolent felony charge made sense given the nature of the attack, the unsteady manner of the assailant and the fact that he had not actually hit Mr. Zeldin with his weapon.
Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, a Brooklyn Democrat who has played a key role in shaping the state’s bail laws, condemned the attack on Mr. Zeldin but accused him of trying to exploit it for political gain.
“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,” Ms. Walker said. “The safest communities are those with the most resources, not the highest incarceration rates.”
Joe Chenelly, a Republican candidate for State Assembly who was serving as the master of ceremonies for Mr. Zeldin, helped take the man to the ground and eventually restrain him with zip ties that had been used to hang campaign banners.
When Mr. Jakubonis said he had deployed to Iraq, Mr. Chenelly, who also serves as the national executive director for Amvets, a veterans service organization, said he immediately changed his approach. He later worried that it would be a risk to the man’s safety to release him so quickly after his arrest.
“I stopped him right then and said obviously what he’s done is very serious and he’s going to have to deal with it,” Mr. Chenelly said in an interview on Friday. “But if he needs mental health services we’re going to get him those.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.