Zeldin accused of running misleading and racist campaign ad featuring mentally ill man fatally shot by cops

The family of a mentally ill man who was shot and killed by police in 2018 called Monday on the Zeldin campaign to remove an ad that they charge as racist and misleading.
Photo by Dean Moses

The campaign of Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin was accused Monday of using images of a mentally ill man, shot and killed by Brooklyn police officers four years ago, in an ad that advocates charged was racist and misleading.

Thirty-four-year-old Saheed Vassell was gunned down on April 4, 2018 in Crown Heights by responding officers from the 71st Precinct for holding what they believed, at the time, to be a firearm. After the shooting, police discovered the object Vassell had been brandishing was actually a metal pipe that looked similar to a handgun.

Attorney General Letitia James’ Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit released its report one year later stating that no charges were “legally justified” but also recommended officers should undergo further training. However, the story did not end there.

Supporters and elected officials joining family members of Saheed Vassell outside Brooklyn Borough Hall on Nov. 7 didn’t mince words. The group rallied against Republican gubernatorial Candidate Lee Zeldin for what they cite as an inaccurate campaign ad. As reported by the Brooklyn Paper in September, family members have been demanding the retraction of the commercial which shows security footage of Vassell pointing the pipe with a voice over by Zeldin stating: “On November 8, vote like your life depends on it. It just might.”

But the ad remains active with less than 36 hours before the polls close in the tight contest between Zeldin and incumbent Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul. Vassell’s family members on Monday denounced the ad and demanded that Zeldin finally take it off the air. 

Father of Saheed Vassell, Eric Vassell. Photo by Dean Moses

Father of Saheed Vassell, Eric Vassell, pleaded for Zeldin to take down the video, stating that his son did not physically harm anyone, so framing him as an attacker is inaccurate.

“Mr. Zeldin placed an ad showing him as a violent criminal. Doing so brought back grief and pain to my family. My wife could not be here today because she grieves so much the loss of her son. Today, I am asking Mr. Lee Zeldin to take down that racist ad,” Eric Vassell said.

Council Member Lincoln Restler furiously called out the Republican candidate, accusing Zeldin of being a racist.

“I want to say this as plainly as I can: Lee Zeldin is a racist. Lee Zeldin is a racist. Lee Zeldin is a racist,” Restler repeated. “I am profoundly upset; I am angry about the drama that he is forcing upon the family of Saheed Vassell.”

Council Member Lincoln Restler. Photo by Dean Moses

The family attorney — MK Kaishian, who is seeking legal action on behalf of the Vassells — maintained that despite the speak out coming one day before midterm elections, the action is not politically motivated. Instead, Kaishian asserted that the only person to make the issue political is Zeldin himself for running the ad. 

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams also acknowledged that with the election just over the horizon, the ad will soon stop syndicating anyway. However, he also feels this showcases that Zeldin doesn’t care for who, if elected, would be his constituents.

“This ad is going to be down itself because the campaign is almost over. But why didn’t you take it down before that? Just to show people who you want to be your constituents that you actually care. Real people, real families, real trauma, they want some real solutions, not just campaign ads meant to drive fear,” Williams said.

Lee Zeldin’s campaign fired back, stating that the ad in question has not aired on Television or social media for well over a month.   

Additional reporting by Ben Brachfeld

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. Photo by Dean Moses