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Kathy Hochul's Massive Mistake
Brian Benjamin is arrested
Since early 2021, it was clear something would happen to Brian Benjamin. Scandal clouds have followed him since Kathy Hochul chose him to be her lieutenant governor last summer, following Andrew Cuomo’s resignation. Benjamin was a state senator who had run a failed campaign for city comptroller. Already, there was suspicions he had overseen some kind of straw donor scheme to take advantage of the city’s generous public matching funds program.
Today, federal prosecutors charged Benjamin with conspiring to direct state funds to a Harlem real estate investor in exchange for orchestrating thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions to that 2021 comptroller campaign. They alleged that Benjamin engaged in various lies and deceptions to cover up the scheme, including falsifying campaign donation forms and giving false information as part of a background check to become lieutenant governor last year. Benjamin will face pressure to resign.
Even if he steps down, there is almost no way to remove him from the Democratic ballot before the June primary. The petitioning process has ended and the deadline has passed to designate a replacement. To not appear on the ballot, Benjamin would have to die or leave the state. He is not a lawyer, so he can’t be nominated for a judgeship.
All of this was avoidable because Benjamin was always a terrible pick for lieutenant governor and easily represents the worst political mistake Hochul has made. Hochul, a white Erie County native, wanted a Black politician from New York City to shore up her downstate electoral prospects for 2022. But Black voters aren’t a monolith who will simply flock to a candidate just because she’s running with a Black man. And even if such a candidate had this magnetic pull, there were far better choices. New York has no shortage of qualified Black elected officials or Black policy minds in government. Hochul didn’t have to choose a state legislator. David Paterson named Richard Ravitch, the former MTA chairman, as his lieutenant governor.
Beyond his scandals, Benjamin was a political lightweight. He finished a distant fourth in the primary for city comptroller, losing his own Senate district to Brad Lander and Corey Johnson. Even if he managed to avoid controversy, it was entirely unclear he had the ability to deliver any votes to Hochul.
For the new governor, Benjamin’s arrest is terrible on several fronts. It ruins the narrative that she had cleaned up Albany after Cuomo’s downfall. Cuomo’s top aides and allies went to prison following corruption scandals. Now, someone close to Hochul might do the same. Her top two primary opponents, Jumaane Williams and Tom Suozzi, will be happy to remind voters of Benjamin’s arrest. Hochul’s massive war chest—she has more than $20 million—and unflinching support from the Democratic establishment should get her through June. A well-funded Republican like Lee Zeldin will enjoy hanging Benjamin’s failures around Hochul in the general election. Given New York’s Democratic lean, she should still win comfortably, but anything is possible in what will probably be a dismal midterm year for Democrats.
Meanwhile, it’s highly likely Hochul will have a lieutenant governor next year she didn’t choose. The front-runner could be Ana Maria Archila, the prominent activist endorsed by the Working Families Party. Archila, a proud progressive, would instantly be a foil for Hochul and give the institutional left its first major statewide victory in many decades, if ever. Diane Reyna, a former city councilwoman, is campaigning with Suozzi, offering a more conservative alternative to Archila. If Archila nets Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement and taps into a large online fundraising network, she will have serious advantages over Reyna.
One cynical, if defensible, move for the Hochul campaign may be to embrace Reyna. Suozzi, who has criticized Hochul extensively, would be infuriated, but Reyna shares Hochul’s moderate politics. She used to work for Eric Adams, who is now a close Hochul ally. Hochul’s campaign could partner with Reyna and decide to spend some of their $20 million on her as a hedge against Archila. It’s a maneuver progressives should be prepared to combat.
The indictment of Benjamin is also a reminder that Williams, the public advocate, should have probably swallowed his ego and made a second bid for lieutenant governor. In 2018, he nearly beat Hochul, and could have run very strongly against Benjamin this year. As a candidate for lieutenant governor, he would be the obvious front-runner; Reyna, with Hochul’s money, wouldn’t have the name recognition to compete with him in New York City.
Instead, Williams opted to run for governor. Hochul is polling well ahead of him and has far more money. His chances of winning are remote. The Working Families Party, months ago, should have convinced him to take the safer route. Whatever Archila’s chances of winning are now, Williams’ would have been much greater. Archila will have to prepare for the state’s moneyed interests to move against her. Real estate and finance elites do not want her anywhere near the governor’s mansion. A bigger fight will be brewing.