'Racist' TV spot lands New York MAGA candidate a cease-and-desist order
Lee Zeldin speaking with attendees at the 2019 Teen Student Action Summit in 2019. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

On Monday, The Daily Beast reported that Lee Zeldin, the congressman running for governor of New York, faces a cease-and-desist request from the family of a man who was shot by the NYPD in 2018, after Zeldin used a scary-looking picture of him to cut an ad attacking incumbent Gov. Kathy Hochul as soft on crime.

"In 2018, officers from the New York City Police Department shot and killed 34-year-old Saheed Vassell in his Brooklyn neighborhood while he held what 911 callers thought was a gun, but turned out to be a piece of pipe," reported Eileen Grench. "At the time, family and community members filled the streets to cry out that Vassell was mentally ill — but never violent. His death galvanized calls for an end to racially-biased, quick-trigger policing in his Crown Heights, Brooklyn, neighborhood and beyond."

The image of Vassell holding the pipe was inserted into a Zeldin ad that purported to show "actual violent crimes caught on camera in Kathy Hochul’s New York” — even though Vassell was killed by police with no actual proof he had committed a crime, and even though all of this took place three years before Hochul was even sworn in as governor. "The jarring TV advertisement, which Zeldin bragged was launched with a 'seven-figure buy' in September, has run on social media and YouTube as well, where it comes with an offensive content warning," said the report. "'Vote on November 8th like your life depends on it. It just might,' says an ominous female voice after a series of allegedly violent crimes, shootings and, perhaps most jarringly, zoomed-in security footage of Vassell holding the pipe at the 21-second mark."

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In a statement on Monday, Vassell's father said, “Today I’m asking Lee Zeldin to take down that racist ad. If Lee Zeldin wants to make this about Saheed, he can call for an end to police brutality and support the mental health needs of New Yorkers like my son. Instead, he has chosen to enrich himself and misrepresent the final moments of Saheed’s life.”

"The [cease-and-desist] letter, dated last Thursday, accused Zeldin’s campaign of being aware of the details of Vassell’s death and running the 'malicious, knowing, intentional, and dishonest,' spot anyway," said the report. "'Saheed was and remains a father, son, brother, uncle, and beloved member of his community,' reads the letter by lawyer M.K. Kashian of Kaishian & Kline LLC. 'However, you and your campaign intentionally misrepresent the facts of his death and character to spread fear and mislead the public to devastating effects on the wellbeing and reputations of those who knew him best.'"

Zeldin has sought to make crime a fixture of the 2022 New York gubernatorial race, where New York City has seen a modest increase in violent crime but remains one of the safest places in the United States. In particularly, Zeldin and his allies have focused on the state bail reform policies, which they blame for increases in crime. Experts have found no link whatsoever between reforms that prevent pretrial lockup of nonviolent offenders and increases in crime.