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New York Governor Candidate Wards Off Assault, the Latest Attack on a Political Figure

At a campaign rally in Perinton, New York, a man walked on to the stage, brandished a pointed metal object, and swung it towards U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin’s neck on Thursday evening.

Zeldin, the Republican candidate for New York Governor, was able to grab his attacker’s wrist, causing the two to fall to the ground as bystanders then intervened. Authorities then arrested David Jakubonis, 43, a veteran, who has been charged with attempted assault in the second degree and released without bail.

In a statement on Twitter, Zeldin said he was grateful for the many individuals who stepped in to assist and for the local law enforcement response. 

“Political scores should be settled at the ballot box, not on stage at campaign events trying to violently attack candidates you disagree with,” Zeldin wrote. “This is not ok. This is the United States of America. This is the greatest country in the history of the world.”

The Associated Press (AP) reports that Zeldin had private security at the event, but his security presence would be immediately increased. 

“Jacob Murphy, a spokesperson for Zeldin’s congressional office, said Friday that Zeldin had a minor scrape from the incident,” according to the AP. “He said Zeldin had not received any specific threats recently.”

The lack of specific threats prior to an attack on a public figure or politician is not unusual. Previous research by the U.S. Secret Service on assassinations and assassination attempts found that none of the attackers they studied communicated a direct threat about their target to their target or to law enforcement before acting.

“The finding that attackers do not communicate direct threats to their targets does suggest, however, that attention should be directed toward identifying, investigating, and assessing persons whose behavior indicates that they might pose threats of violence, whether or not they communicate direct threats to their targets or to authorities,” according to Preventing Assassination: Exceptional Case Study Project.

The attack on Zeldin, however, is just a recent example of a rise in violence and harassment towards political figures around the world. Last night, the U.S. House of Representatives January 6th Committee held its eighth hearing on the attack on the U.S. Capitol in 2021, which put then U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and members of both houses of Congress in danger as an angry mob stormed the building to chants of “Hang Mike Pence.” 

In October 2021, a young man posing as a constituent murdered Member of Parliament Sir David Amess at a campaign event at Belfairs Methodist Church in Leigh-on-Sea. Earlier in July 2022, an attacker used a homemade firearm to assassinate former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a campaign event in Nara, Japan. And last Friday, a German court convicted a military officer for plotting to attack prominent politicians, including then-Jusitce Minister Heiko Maas.

While many of these high-profile incidents involved men, experts have also documented an increase on attacks on women in politics around the world—especially in Afghanistan, Burundi, Brazil, China, Colombia, Cuba, India, Mexico, Myanmar, and the Philippines. Mexico is considered the most violent country for women in politics, with women candidates facing high risks of physical violence such as attacks by armed groups of men. 

“Even as women are engaging in elections in record numbers around the world—both by seeking office and by voting—they are being met with an increasingly violent backlash,” wrote Roudabeh Kishi, director of research and innovation at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, for the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security. “With rapidly evolving political situations as well as upcoming elections in many of these countries, the threat of violence targeting women in politics may only grow in the new year.”

U.S. law enforcement officials are also concerned about the increasing number of threats that politicians and election workers are facing. U.S. Capitol Police estimated that they reviewed 9,600 “disconcerting messages and direct threats” against members of Congress in 2021—up from 3,939 in 2017, according to Roll Call.

These threats of violence are translating into increased security presence at offices, campaign events, and meetings. After the assassination of Sir Amess, the Scottish Parliament provided funding for security upgrades to members of parliament’s homes, software to address threatening social media posts, and lone working devices to allow members—or their staff—to send alerts to police or employers about an emergency.

In the United States, the January 6th Committee has increased security measures for its members in response to death threats. On the state level, the National Governors Association met in early July 2022 in Portland, Maine, with an unprecedented security presence.

“The heavy law enforcement presence included city police, state police, and security details, including troopers from other states,” the AP reports. “Plainclothes police roamed the event, and extra officers were kept out of sight, in case they were needed. The increased security presence took place as demonstrators gathered to protest new abortion restrictions in states such as Arkansas, home of outgoing association chairman and current Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican.”

The U.S. Department of Justice has also created a task force to address threats for election workers, and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission released security guidance for elections. But officials in public positions and security experts say that more needs to be done, WIRED reports.

“While we are now on the right track to secure our election infrastructure against cyberattacks, new and different threats, many with domestic roots, have arisen, including threats of physical harm to our election officials, their families, and their staff,” Elizabeth Howard, senior counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, told the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee during a hearing on election security. “Not surprisingly, these threats are leading to additional serious concerns, such as an alarming number of election officials leaving the profession, which are contributing to the fragility of our democracy.”

Security Management spoke to four close protection/executive protection practitioners about measures to protect public figures from violence. Learn more by reading “Building a Methodology for Proactive Close Protection” from our July/August 2022 issue.