New York lt. governor scandal roils Hochul’s reelection bid
Brian Benjamin’s (D) resignation Tuesday from his post as New York lieutenant governor is sparking uncertainties for Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and the race to replace him later this year.
Hochul, who appointed Benjamin her deputy last year when she replaced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) after his own resignation, will now have to find a replacement for him. On top of that, it’s likely too late to take Benjamin off the ballot for the June primary, raising questions of what would happen if he wins over the summer and in November or what a new Hochul administration would look like if he loses.
“It increases uncertainty,” said New York Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. “Unquestionably.”
Albany was rattled Tuesday when Benjamin, 45, was arrested over allegations of campaign finance misconduct. He was charged with one count of federal program bribery, one count of honest services wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit those offenses and two counts of falsification of records.
The scandal-inducing indictment stemmed from allegations that Benjamin, during his time as a state senator, sought to funnel state funds to an organization in exchange for campaign contributions to his ultimately unsuccessful 2021 run for New York City comptroller.
Hochul swiftly pressed for Benjamin’s ouster, announcing hours after the indictment that he would be leaving his post.
“I have accepted Brian Benjamin’s 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,” Hochul said in a statement. “New Yorkers deserve absolute confidence in their government, and I will continue working every day to deliver for them.”
There has been no evidence to suggest that Hochul was aware of any of the wrongdoing, and the alleged misconduct occurred before he was tapped to be her deputy. The indictment stated that Benjamin lied when Hochul’s team vetted him but still raised questions of whether he was vetted thoroughly enough in the first place.
“He filled out the background check form. We had been told that everything that had risen up had been addressed, everything was clean. That’s what we were told,” Hochul said on The Brian Lehrer Show Wednesday. “I made the best decision I could with the information I had at that time, but clearly we need a better, different process, a more strengthened streamlined process that can get us more detail than we had at the time.”
Hochul now must decide if she’ll replace Benjamin in Albany, and if so, with whom.
Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Democratic president pro tempore of the state Senate, will serve as the acting lieutenant governor under state law. A source familiar with the matter told The Hill that conversations about a replacement are underway, and Hochul said Wednesday that “there’s a lot of people to consider.”
The governor can unilaterally pick her replacement, though any choice would be a placeholder until the election this year given that it’s too late to get a spot on the primary or general election ballot as a Democrat, barring a difficult, 11th-hour write-in campaign.
“At best, an empowered lieutenant governor is a glorified staffer,” said one New York state legislator. “Who would want a job just for eight months if they’re not even running for it?”
Beyond just the lieutenant governor’s office in Albany, Benjamin’s resignation is inserting chaos in the race for his position.
Benjamin earlier this year was named the designated nominee by the state Democratic Party in the lieutenant governor’s race, meaning he was placed on the primary ballot as a Democrat without having to go through the petition process. But now, getting him off the ballot could be a difficult – if not insurmountable – hurdle.
Benjamin would have to die, leave the state or seek another office to take his name off the ballot now, the latter two of which could be complicated due to his legal issues. However, the source who said discussions are underway to find a replacement as lieutenant governor also confirmed that conversations are being had to explore options to get Benjamin’s name off the ballot – a prospect Hochul Wednesday conceded would be tough.
“The laws are very complicated. I think that’s something worth looking at, how difficult it is if this circumstance happens or another circumstance occurs to be able to make a change after a certain deadline. But that’s something we’re examining right now,” she said.
In New York, the governor and lieutenant governor candidates run separately in a primary, but the ultimate nominees for those offices run on a joint line in the general election, meaning Hochul in November will have to run either with Benjamin and his baggage or with a newcomer.
The other candidates in the lieutenant governor’s race have significantly lower profiles than Benjamin’s. The two main contenders are former Deputy Brooklyn Borough President Diana Reyna, who is running on an informal ticket with Rep. Thomas Suozzi, a Hochul primary challenger, and activist Ana Maria Archila.
They’re not believed to have substantive relationships with Hochul, though they’d still have to share a ticket with her in November if Benjamin loses the primary, as the state legislator anticipated.
“It’s impossible to know where people are going to land on this, and I still think the Hochul folks are still looking for a way to replace [Benjamin] on the ballot,” the legislator said.
However, given the name recognition Benjamin boasts and voters’ short memories, some strategists would not definitively rule out a win for him in June.
“It’s a very under-covered and unknown…position, and he certainly can’t campaign. And other people can campaign,” said one New York-based Democratic strategist. Still, the person said it would be a “big headache” if Benjamin wins “because it’s going to be in the first paragraph of every news piece written.”
Beyond the race for Benjamin’s old job, the resignation hands Hochul’s enemies a club to bludgeon her with in her own reelection bid, with Suozzi calling the fiasco “an indictment on Kathy Hochul’s lack of experience and poor judgment.”
The resignation also comes at a terrible time for Hochul. Benjamin’s resignation could get tied to a growing crime wave, which polls show is a growing concern among voters, as well as the perception of wrongdoing in Albany, particularly after Cuomo’s resignation over sexual misconduct allegations.
“Gov. Hochul’s opponents, whether in a primary or a general election, will try to use this to hammer her,” said the strategist.
Democrats note that Hochul will likely still be reelected in deep-blue New York, but the legislator said the party can’t take anything for granted in such a Republican-friendly year and that the latest scandal is an unnecessary distraction.
“This is going to be a very rough year,” the person said. “Republicans, it’s hard to imagine them winning statewide in any other circumstances, but if those circumstances exist, this year is shaping up to present that opportunity.”
Still, with great risk comes great reward, and operatives suggest a deft handling of the scandal could even boost Hochul’s standing.
“If she emerges from this, she will be a real national star,” Sheinkopf said. “It would prove that a woman, when in chaos, can in fact control her environment and show extraordinary political ability and governmental ability at the same time.”