By Richard Lee
When a man walked onstage and confronted Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin during a campaign event in Fairport on July 21, Zeldin emerged unharmed.
He also emerged with a powerful personal story — complete with visuals — to underscore one of the central themes of his campaign.
Zeldin has placed crime at the forefront of his agenda, charging that his opponent, Gov. Kathy Hochul, is soft on crime.
And he has taken particular aim at 2019 state law that allows most individuals charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies to avoid jail without posting bail.
Zeldin wasted no time incorporating the Fairport incident into his political strategy. After he assured supporters he was unharmed, he tweeted, “The attacker will likely be instantly released under NY’s laws.”
Hochul condemned the attack and said she was glad Zeldin was safe, but that wasn’t enough for New York Republican Chair Nick Langworthy, who implied that the state’s Democratic governor bore some responsibility for the incident.
“It’s not a coincidence that just hours earlier, Kathy Hochul fanned the flames of hate by directing her supporters to his rally schedule,” Langworthy said in a statement. “This is unacceptable conduct for anyone, let alone a sitting governor. It’s not enough to condemn the attack, she must apologize and tone down her hateful rhetoric immediately.”
Zeldin took the ball and ran with it, unleashing a series of tweets and retweets after the man who rushed the stage was released.
“We cannot live in a state where someone who commits a felony trying to stab me on stage at a campaign rally then gets immediately released,” he wrote in one of the tweets. “New York’s cashless bail law must be repealed! Kathy Hochul refuses to get this job done. I will!”
Next, Langworthy held a media availability to criticize Hochul and New York Democrats for the state’s bail reform laws. Then Zeldin turned the incident into a campaign ad.
While the confrontation fits perfectly into Zeldin’s narrative, the greatest benefit for his campaign may lie elsewhere. The incident has given Zeldin something winning candidates need — name recognition.
In a June 16 Siena College Research Institute poll, voters were asked whether they held a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Zeldin. More than half (57%) either did not know who he was or had no opinion. (Those who did have opinions were fairly evenly divided – 21% favorable, 22% unfavorable.)
But the incident that took place in Fairport, a small village outside Rochester, has given Zeldin the type of exposure that cannot be bought.
The story has been covered extensively by media outlets all over New York. National networks, including Fox, MSNBC and CNN also have covered the story, as have Politico, the New York Times, the Washington Post and many other major news organizations. A Google search for “Lee Zeldin attack” will yield millions of stories.
Of course, being known as the candidate who was attacked onstage may not be the best way to gain name recognition. But for someone running for office, it’s much better than not being known at all.
Richard Lee, executive director of the Jandoli Institute, covered politics and government as a reporter and later served as Deputy Director of Communication for two New Jersey governors. Click here to read more of Lee’s ‘”On the Road to Albany” columns, and follow the Jandoli Institute on Twitter and Facebook for updates.