Kathy Hochul’s Challenge: Keep Brian Benjamin Resignation Fallout From Turning Radioactive
The lieutenant governor’s resignation following campaign finance indictment leaves Hochul running on a shared ticket, with messy options for distancing herself.
Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin resigned Tuesday, hours after his federal indictment in a scheme to secure campaign donations.
But he’ll likely remain on the ballot for the primary election in June, and may throw into turmoil Gov. Kathy Hochul’s bid to be elected as the first woman to lead New York, as she faces challengers to her right and left.
After 5 p.m. Tuesday, about eight hours after news of Benjamin’s arrest broke, Hochul released her first public statement on her lieutenant’s situation, saying that she had accepted his resignation, effective immediately.
“While the legal process plays out, it is clear to both of us that he cannot continue to serve as Lieutenant Governor. New Yorkers deserve absolute confidence in their government, and I will continue working every day to deliver for them,” read her statement.
But with the April 11 deadline now passed to accept or decline designations for the upcoming June primary, Hochul is stuck with Benjamin on the ticket, according to election lawyers and political observers. That’s unless a few key things happen — Benjamin moves out of state, is nominated for another office and declines the LG nomination, or dies.
Another path could emerge for Benjamin to get the boot from the ballot: state lawmakers could pass a bill to do it — but sources say that’s unlikely to happen because budget negotiations were so contentious that lawmakers left Albany feeling embittered with Hochul. Possible political blowback that would come from such a move also discourages action.
That could leave Hochul in a tricky place. She was adamant as recently as last Thursday that she had “the utmost confidence” in Benjamin and reassured reporters that he would continue to be her running mate.
“This is a game of optics. Why put yourself in a position when this could be the case?” said one Democratic operative who did not want to be named so he could freely discuss the situation. “Last week serves to remind everyone of just how bullish she was that this was going to be OK.”
Democrats had started to whisper early Tuesday about how Benjamin’s possible resignation might give the governor and other Democrats a chance to distance themselves from him in the upcoming elections, according to sources briefed on the discussions.
Benjamin had been a state senator representing upper Manhattan, and then a candidate for city comptroller — placing fourth in the 2021 Democratic primary — before Hochul tapped him to be her second-in-command.
The resignation gives Hochul — the first governor in generations not to hail from New York City or the surrounding suburbs — some cover as she faces challenges from within her own party, as well as Republicans.
But his resignation is not a panacea, since the name Brian A. Benjamin will appear on the ballot.
“His nomination at the party convention is not contingent upon completing his existing term in office. It has nothing to do with the current term in office — it’s about nominating him for the next term in office,” said Ali Najmi, an election lawyer. “If Brian Benjamin wins the Democratic primary despite this indictment hanging over him, then whoever the other parties put up would be running against him.”
Until Hochul selects a replacement for Benjamin, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) will become acting lieutenant governor for a second time under Hochul. (The first had been when Hochul initially ascended into the role.)
Meanwhile, Benjamin’s lawyers, James Gatta and William Harrington, released a statement defending the former lieutenant governor, saying the $50,000 grant Benjamin “supported” went to cover school supplies for students in Harlem.
“He will focus his energies on explaining in court why his actions were laudable — not criminal,” Gatta said in the statement. “He looks forward to when this case is finished so he can rededicate himself to public service.”
‘Get Control of This’
Benjamin’s arrest took place on the same day as a mass subway shooting in Brooklyn, “adding to the sense that things are out of control,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant. “The governor’s job now is to try to get control of this as quickly as possible. How do you do that? You got to get rid of Benjamin.”
Hochul, a Buffalo native who had previously been lieutenant governor under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, ascended into the position in August following Cuomo’s resignation as he faced allegations of sexual harassment.
Catapulted into a chaotic first few days in office as she contended with Hurricane Ida, which killed more than 40 people in the region, as well as an expiring eviction moratorium, rising number of COVID-19 cases and controversial vaccination mandates, one of Hochul’s earliest decisions was to tap Benjamin as her number-two.
Several sources familiar with the decision described how anxious the governor and her team were to select someone who would carry credibility among New York City residents and create political alliances with Black or Latino elected officials from the area.
The decision to tap Benjamin, who has ties to the Harlem political machine, was made so quickly that the other official in the running — Sen. Jamaal Bailey, the head of the Bronx Democratic Party — found out he didn’t get the job through Twitter, sources said.
While a largely ceremonial post, the lieutenant governor position has been a springboard to power as scandal-scarred governors have resigned in disgrace. Years before Hochul replaced Cuomo, Lt. Gov. David Paterson succeeded Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who’d resigned amid a prostitution scandal.
Benjamin’s arrest harkens back to the days of “Albany dysfunction,” said another Democratic strategist. That Hochul waited until so late in the day to address the morning arrest publicly just compounds how inexperienced her team is, opined another operative.
“This is the moment that calls for the governor to take a step back and not only look at the seriousness of the allegations against the lieutenant governor that she hand-picked, but also the culture in Albany that fosters and allows such a casual relationship with big money donors,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, Director of the New York Working Families Party.
The left-leaning WFP has backed Public Advocate Jumaane Williams for governor and activist Ana María Archila for lieutenant governor.
“It’s incumbent on the governor who really prided herself on busting in after her predecessor, vowing to separate herself from the ethical and nefarious politics that marked the Cuomo era — this is a testing moment for her to show voters what that means.”
But it’s not all hopeless for Hochul. The indictment pointed out that Benjamin had lied on his vetting forms, giving Hochul plausible deniability over what she knew and when she knew it, noted another Democrat.
State Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs offered a statement supporting “Hochul’s accomplishments which have done so much for the people of our State,” while also commending Benjamin for his resignation and “a lot of good” he did for New Yorkers.
As part of the bail agreement, federal prosecutors have ordered Benjamin to remain in New York City and the surrounding suburbs, meaning he would no longer have been allowed to travel to the state capital and perform the duties usually associated with the lieutenant governor.
But prosecutors are allowing him to travel to the northern district of Georgia and eastern district of Virginia, two places where Benjamin has family, according to a Democratic source.
High-level Democratic officials in New York are already discussing the possibility of asking Benjamin to resettle in either Georgia or Virginia in an effort to disqualify him from the ballot, paving the way for a committee on vacancies made up of party leaders to select a replacement.
Or, to shake off any possible lingering political liabilities from Benjamin, Hochul could throw her weight behind either of the other candidates for lieutenant governor, including WFP-backed Archila, or Rep. Tom Suozzi’s running mate, Diana Reyna, a former deputy borough president under then-Borough President Eric Adams and a former City Council member.
If that’s the case, she would be “stuck with a lieutenant governor who tries to kill her slowly,” said one Democrat.
“Best case scenario she has an LG undermining her for four years,” the source added.