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Someone Should Run for Lt. Governor
An opportunity for the Left beckons
The lieutenant governor of New York has few defined responsibilities. When paired with a domineering governor, the position becomes largely irrelevant. Robert Duffy, who once served as mayor of Rochester, was Andrew Cuomo’s lieutenant in his first term and decided against running on the ticket again. Few New Yorkers knew who he was and there was so little to do. He was a low-key Cuomo cheerleader with no tangible power.
The same has held for most other lieutenant governors. Do you remember Stan Lundine? Betsy McCaughey Ross? Alfred Del Bello? The only lieutenants who live on are those who, through various quirks of history, become governor. Nelson Rockefeller resigned in 1973 to focus on national endeavors, allowing Malcom Wilson to run the state. David Paterson replaced Eliot Spitzer, who was forced out over a prostitution scandal. Kathy Hochul, of course, is now governor thanks to the downfall of Cuomo. Cuomo tried to dump her from the ticket in 2018 and she wisely held on. Now she reaps her reward—a growing probability of a full term in office.
Few ambitious politicians, for most of modern New York history, have taken the lieutenant governor’s post seriously, assuming that it’s not worth waiting around for the rare opportunity to replace a governor. The last lieutenant governor to use the position as any kind of electoral steppingstone was Mario Cuomo, who served during the Hugh Carey years in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For most other politicians, a seat in Congress, the attorney general’s office, or some other position of prominence is viewed as better way to vault to the top. Being president of the State Senate and having a pivotal role in a highly theoretical impeachment trial—a New York governor has not been impeached in more than a century—doesn’t hold much appeal.
Yet credit must go to Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate, for viewing the office differently than most. When he was still in the City Council, he decided to mount a bid for the post in 2018. The lieutenant governor runs separately from the governor in the primary. Candidates usually form tickets—Williams announced his bid first and later supported Cynthia Nixon for governor—but they don’t have to. This has happened in California, where Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom were reluctant partners, with Newsom largely marginalized during Brown’s two terms in the 2010s. In New York, Williams sought to defeat Hochul, Cuomo’s then-loyal lieutenant, and perhaps serve with the governor himself, who was a heavy favorite to beat Nixon.
Despite raising very little money, Williams came close to winning. Had he won, he would have been afforded a serious bully pulpit in the Cuomo administration. In that sense, the lieutenant governor position is not so different than the one Williams would go on to occupy in 2019: public advocate of New York City. Each are second-in-line to the executive, though the PA needs to compete in a special election after taking on the role of acting mayor. Each are largely defanged, though allow the occupant to play a small role in the legislative process. At its best, the public advocate’s office is a place where an active politician can serve as an ombudsperson for the city, issuing reports and championing important issues. The best public advocate in city history was probably its first, Mark Green, who took the post most seriously from a policy perspective.
A vibrant, left-leaning lieutenant governor independent of Hochul could provide a crucial check on her growing power. Her temperament and tenure so far suggests she will govern much differently than Cuomo, allowing agencies and the legislature leeway to pursue sensible policy, trust experts, and reach consensus. She is not a bully. Her malleable political ideology allows room for progressives to persuade her to take on their causes, like she did when signing a major parole reform bill or accelerating a pandemic rental aid program Cuomo undercut and ignored. What’s important, though, is that left-leaning lawmakers and activists don’t get too comfortable. Hochul is likelier than ever to win a full term and begin to accumulate the clout that Cuomo enjoyed over a decade. She has no qualms with aggressively fundraising from Cuomo’s same pool of donors—finance executives, real estate developers, charter school titans—and it’s likely these people will demand favors in return for their largesse.
Williams, as I’ve written before, is ideally suited to run for lieutenant governor again. He has committed to a much more difficult governor’s race and that’s his choice. If Williams decides to pursue Hochul and risk defeat, other progressives should take up the cause. The current lieutenant governor is Brian Benjamin, a former state senator from Harlem who has never won a competitive election. In June, he ran for city comptroller and finished a distant fourth in the Democratic primary. He finished third in his own State Senate district. Lately, he has been in the news for fudging answers on a background check. A Harlem real estate developer was recently arrested for allegedly making a fraudulent donation to his comptroller campaign. Benjamin is little-known to voters statewide and has a poor electoral track record. For someone like Williams, who has competed citywide and statewide, it is a very winnable race.
If Williams passes, another progressive should run. There is no shortage of young, ambitious politicians in New York City and New York State politics. The State Senate is filled with them, whether it’s Alessandra Biaggi, Jabari Brisport, Jessica Ramos, or Zellnor Myrie. The State Assembly has a growing contingent of political talent as well. Benjamin will be able to glom off Hochul’s fundraising and enjoy some labor support, but a spending advantage won’t entirely insulate him. In 2018, when Hochul was lieutenant governor, she had the full benefit of Cuomo’s ticket and still lost Brooklyn and Manhattan to Williams. Had Williams raised even $1 million, a small figure for a statewide campaign, he might have won.
If Benjamin is beaten and a dynamic politician replaces him, that Democrat will have a statewide perch to push progressive policy and build media pressure against Hochul if she becomes less amenable to movement politics in the future. A strong lieutenant governor can travel the state advocating for policy and organize lawmakers around certain causes. They needn’t be only hostile or combative with Hochul; collaboration can go a long way too. But installing a progressive there will guarantee, at the minimum, another voice is in Albany to speak to the pressing needs of the state’s working-class. And it doesn’t hurt to have someone like that a heartbeat away from the governor’s mansion. As Cuomo taught us, life moves quickly.
A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated Nelson Rockefeller resigned to become vice president.