Top 1 Magazine

Top One Magazine

Hochul faces tough choices after lt. gov’s arrest and resignation in New York

ALBANY, N.Y. — Nobody in modern New York history has been more vocal a champion of the often-obscure office of lieutenant governor than Kathy Hochul, who served seven years in that post before she was elevated to the governorship last August.

Now the job has become a political albatross for Hochul. The person she wound up picking for that role — then state Sen. Brian Benjamin — has been indicted in an alleged bribery scheme. On Tuesday, he was arrested and arraigned in federal court in Manhattan. By the end of the day, he announced he had resigned to focus on “explaining in court why his actions were laudable—not criminal.”

The high-profile case puts Hochul in a difficult position as she seeks a full term this year while tethered to Benjamin. While Benjamin is out of office, Hochul could be forced to maintain political ties to Benjamin through the June primary election — and maybe run on the same ticket in November should he win the Democratic nomination and turns down options for bowing out of the race.

Just five days ago, Hochul said she had the “utmost confidence” in her lieutenant, even after reports emerged that he had been subpoenaed.

“While the legal process plays out, it is clear to both of us that he cannot continue to serve as Lieutenant Governor,” she said in a statement on Tuesday evening. “New Yorkers deserve absolute confidence in their government, and I will continue working every day to deliver for them.”

Hochul has not been tied to the allegations. The charges involve discretionary money Benjamin distributed as a state senator, and the indictment alleges he lied when the governor was screening him for his position.

But Hochul’s opponents were quick to seize on Benjamin’s arrest as they both will appear separately on the June 28 primary ballot. Lieutenant governors and governors run separately in a New York primary, but as a ticket in November general elections.

The attacks questioning Hochul’s judgment in picking Benjamin amid news reports at the time of his troubles began to flow almost as soon as the news broke.

Hochul’s primary challenger Rep. Tom Suozzi and his running mate Diana Reyna called it “an indictment on Kathy Hochul’s lack of experience and poor judgment.”

Another lieutenant governor primary challenger, Ana Maria Archila, scheduled an almost immediate press conference and said he was a continuation of Albany corruption, “with politicians trading favors for the money of the wealthy and powerful.”

And Rep. Lee Zeldin, who GOP leaders’ are backing in their gubernatorial race, said what Hochul does goes to her leadership.

“Kathy Hochul should be calling on her lieutenant governor to resign,” Zeldin said at an afternoon news conference. “That would be leadership. But by the way, that should have happened already.”

Even Republican candidate for governor Harry Wilson, who has avoided direct attacks on Hochul, issued a statement blasting Hochul’s “enormous error in judgment that has contributed to the many challenges facing New Yorkers.”

Can Hochul get Benjamin off the ballot?

The options for Benjamin getting off the ballot and letting Hochul gain some distance don’t seem terribly promising.

Hochul will be on the ballot in June with Suozzi and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. Benjamin will be in a separate race against their lieutenant governor picks, former New York City Council member Reyna and activist Archila. The winners of these two contests will be on a ticket in November.

So if Hochul wins the primary, she will likely have three options. And none of those appear to be the ability to swap Benjamin for another candidate before the primary.

She could form a November ticket with one of her opponent’s running mates, an idea which could be unpalatable for an official who has spent years arguing that it’s critical for a governor and lieutenant governor to show the public that they’re in lockstep. She could stick with Benjamin if he wins and hope the indictment won’t blow open the door for Republicans.

Or she could hope that Benjamin wins, then agrees he’ll find some way to get off the ticket — he could potentially be nominated for a down-ballot office — and let Hochul pick a new running-mate in July.

But having Benjamin on the ticket and encouraging voters to pick him with the understanding he could eventually bow out may be a difficult situation for Hochul.

Dealing with Benjamin as lieutenant governor

Those political complications are likely to be made even more of a mess by the sure-to-be incessant calls for Benjamin to resign.

After news of Benjamin’s arrest broke on Tuesday morning, it became obvious that every day he stuck around created political problems for the governor.

Assemblymember Pat Fahy (D-Albany) tweeted that Benjamin should “immediately step aside while these charges are pursued so as not to distract from the urgent work ahead.” Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, whose tenure has overlapped with the downfall of numerous top Albany officials, told Capitol Tonight, a statewide news program, that, “It’s going to be very difficult for him to continue.”

Now that he has resigned, Hochul will need to decide who will replace him — if anybody.

The governor has the power to unilaterally choose a replacement. Last summer, there was a long list of qualified individuals who seemed interested in the job and would have been happy to serve with Hochul for the remainder of her current term and run for a full four years in office.

But it’s a safe bet that most up-and-comers would now be far more hesitant to take the job. Why give up one’s current seat to serve eight months in a new one, and seemingly have only a long shot for even getting on the ballot to win a full term?

Hochul could always go the path that former Gov. David Paterson did when he chose Richard Ravitch, a senior statesman with no political ambitions of his own, to serve as his lieutenant governor in 2009. There are certainly plenty of individuals toward the end of their careers who would be happy to end their time in office with a brief stint in a statewide post.

That’s not without complications of its own, however.

Most voters can’t even name the incumbent lieutenant governor. Picking a placeholder could lead to a scenario in which Hochul’s best path is to serve with one lieutenant governor for a few months, then ask the primary electorate to support her former lieutenant governor in June with the thought that she’d ally with a third potential lieutenant governor before November.

That would be a complicated ask of voters.

“She’s got to prove that she’s in charge. It just depends how quickly can she get rid of him and how quickly can she create a coalition around her,” Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said.

“The real thing there to me — just thinking about national Dem problems — is that things are out of control. The shootings, the violence. In order for her to come to life in a real way, she’s got to take control of crime issue right now. If she has to take on the Legislature, so be it. And Benjamin is now a part of that crime issue.”

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