Brian Benjamin, a Democratic state Senator from Harlem, is slated to become New York’s next lieutenant governor, according to several people briefed on the matter — giving Gov. Kathy Hochul’s 2022 election hopes a potential boost.
Hochul is expected to make the formal announcement tomorrow at a scheduled event with Benjamin in Harlem. Meanwhile, she’s swiftly hiring for other key state posts — while deciding whether to keep on key personnel associated with her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo.
From shortly after her 2014 election until her inauguration this week, Hochul served in the job she is now appointing Benjamin to. She has the power to name a lieutenant governor to finish out her term without putting her choice to a public vote, the state’s highest court has ruled.
Benjamin, 44, has represented Harlem in the Senate since 2017 and earlier this year ran an unsuccessful campaign for city comptroller. He is known as a well-connected figure in Harlem politics.
Benjamin and a spokesperson for Hochul did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
“I think it’s an excellent selection,” said former Rep. Charles B. Rangel, who represented Harlem in Congress for 45 years. “He’s praised by all his colleagues that he’s worked with on a daily basis and he’s widely supported and respected in central Harlem.”
Post’s Power Potential
Hochul, the first woman to lead the state, is also the first governor in generations not to hail from New York City or the surrounding suburbs.
Seeking to broaden her appeal beyond the Buffalo region she briefly represented in Congress, the 62-year-old Hochul had previously said she would pick a number two from New York City — an area rich with Democratic voters that she will urgently need when she runs for a full term in 2022.
According to people briefed on the lieutenant governor search, Hochul’s staff began vetting several New York City elected officials earlier this month when Cuomo announced he would be stepping down. She cast a wide net for a Black or Latino politician who could serve as lieutenant governor.
The job is a largely ceremonial post, but Hochul’s promotion is not the first time the gig has proven a springboard to power following a scandal-fueled resignation by a governor. Thirteen years before Hochul replaced Cuomo, Lt. Gov. David Paterson succeeded Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned amid a prostitution scandal.
Before being picked by Spitzer as his running mate, Paterson served as a state senator, representing the same upper Manhattan district as Benjamin.
Hochul’s office was also strongly considering offering the position to State Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D-The Bronx) and term-limited Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.
Bailey, a protege of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-The Bronx) who started out as an intern in his office, is the head of the Bronx Democratic Party, which has considerable sway over city politics.
In a tweet Wednesday, Bailey congratulated his Senate colleague, saying: “As we reimagine New York, we continue to move forward with the best.”
Ken Sherrill, a professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College, told THE CITY that Benjamin’s appointment is a sign that Hochul is focused on shoring up downstate support from Black voters. He noted that two Black New York City Democrats –– New York Attorney General Leititia James and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams –– stand as formidable potential challengers to Hochul in next year’s primary.
“There are two rules in electoral politics: the first is get elected and the second is get reelected,” said Sherrill. “There’s no doubt that that was in Hochul’s mind when she chose Brian Benjamin. He’s a good campaigner, he’s from the city and he adds diversity to the ticket.”
Hochul’s pick may also have to do with her own past performance in a September 2018 primary against Williams. Hochul, who narrowly won the statewide primary, bested Williams in The Bronx, but lost to him by more than 26,000 votes in Manhattan.
In that race, Hochul suffered a bruising loss in 2018 in Benjamin’s home turf — areas where Williams won with more than 60% of the Democratic primary vote, according to an analysis by Steven Romalewski, director of the mapping service at the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Rangel sees Benjamin as a vote magnet who will help Hochul’s chances next year.
“One thing is for certain, he’ll bring in city votes to help out our new governor. I don’t think he was brought onto the ticket to bring in upstate votes,” said Rangel, who will be supporting the ticket.
Benjamin lost a nine-way Democratic primary in June to be the city’s comptroller, where he only captured 12% of the vote before his ranked-choice elimination.
During the campaign, THE CITY tracked down three men listed as donors on campaign finance records, who all said they had never donated to Benjamin’s comptroller campaign and had never heard of him. All three worked as security guards for the same company. Other unlikely contributors included a 2-year-old boy.
All told, the donations pooled by an associate of a Harlem real estate organization were potentially worth nearly $17,000 in public matching dollars. The campaign subsequently relinquished 23 donations that the supporter had bundled and sent to the campaign.
Benjamin has never personally responded to questions about the donations. The campaign’s attorney wrote in a letter to the city Campaign Finance Board that Benjamin 2021 decided to return the funds “Based upon counsel’s further investigation…as well as upon information reported in the January 4, 2021 article in THE CITY.”
As for why the campaign took the dubious donations, the attorney said it considered the agent who sent the money “a well known and respected figure in the Harlem community,” adding: “the Committee…did not have occasion to question the provenance or legitimacy of the intermediated contributions.”
Prior to working in politics, Benjamin was an investment banker at Morgan Stanley for three years. He later cofounded Harlem4Obama and a community group called Young Professionals for Change. Benjamin also worked at Genesis Companies, a minority-owned business that built affordable housing in Harlem.
The Harlem senator received his undergraduate degree from Brown University and later graduated from Harvard Business School with a master’s of business administration.
He won his first political race in a special election four years ago with the support of the Manhattan Democratic Party, including its chairperson, Keith Wright. Benjamin went on to author bills in the state Senate that eliminated cash bail and ended solitary confinement.
Now that Hochul has made the first significant appointment, others remain on the table, including that of her budget director, a role with significant influence.
Hochul is allowing current administration staff and officials to stay on, if they wish, for a 45-day period — and that includes the powerful budget director appointed by Cuomo, Robert Mujica.
Whether he remains beyond early October is an open question. The state Division of Budget declined to comment on Mujica’s future in the administration.
With his vast knowledge of state government, Mujica could be an asset for the fresh Hochul administration, which needs to craft a budget on a relatively short timeline.
But he’s also seen as one of the last strong vestiges of the Cuomo administration. Beyond his role as essentially the state’s COO, Mujica sits on 34 boards, including the MTA, Public Authorities Control Board and CUNY Board of Trustees.
Mujica, a former GOP state Senate staffer, was involved with arranging an alliance that kept Republicans controlling the Democratic-majority Senate. He opposed raising taxes on the wealthy and capped Medicaid spending for several years.
Sen. Liz Krueger, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said she didn’t think Mujica should remain in the administration, despite his status as a “skilled budget analyst and political operative.”
“He has played a role in endless backroom deals for years and would not serve Kathy Hochul’s vision for the state going forward,” she told THE CITY.
As Hochul balances the need to carve a path for herself independent of Cuomo’s, she also must get things done effectively and use the budget to execute her policy priorities — not least because she’ll be running for another term, observers said.
“Mujica’s span of control grew so vast during Cuomo’s time, it would be hard for many not to perceive his presence as some continuation of the prior administration,” said Andrew Rein, president of the Citizens Budget Commission.
But, he added, no matter whom Hochul appoints to the role, “the buck stops with the governor.”