New York State

How Brian Benjamin will be tested as lieutenant governor

Kathy Hochul outlined an expansive portfolio for her newly sworn-in number two.

Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin being sworn into office on Sep. 9.

Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin being sworn into office on Sep. 9. Darren McGee/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

Gov. Kathy Hochul has promised to make Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin a real partner in power. 

“It's an extraordinary responsibility,” Hochul said as her nominal number two got sworn in at a Thursday morning ceremony held within her midtown Manhattan office. “I wouldn't have asked you if I didn't think you're up for the task.” 

His to-do list includes a new role as her right-hand man on reducing vaccine hesitancy, speeding up the distribution of rental assistance and dealing with the ongoing problems afflicting the New York City Housing Authority. 

Benjamin’s new responsibilities as lieutenant governor reflect much of the work he did as a state senator representing Harlem and adjoining areas in Manhattan. That could give the governor new insights into improving public housing, distributing vaccines, and streamlining a state rental relief program while winning some political goodwill from the Black voters Hochul and Benjamin need to win full terms in office next year. “I (don't) think it's a surprise to anybody that he would get the portfolio (he did),” Democratic political consultant Lupé Todd-Medina, who sits on City & State’s advisory board, said in an interview. “It was smart of her to get somebody who knows Albany and the Legislature but is also from a community that she well understands that she needs assistance in opening doors for her.” This includes a fourth issue named by Hochul as a priority for her lieutenant governor – criminal justice reforms.

The governor has yet to sign into law a controversial bill sponsored by Benjamin in his former role. The so-called “Less is More Act” would make it harder to reincarcerate people for technical violations of their parole – such as testing positive for alcohol – among other provisions aiming to reduce prison and jail populations. “Well I will certainly look at that bill," Hochul told reporters at a Wednesday press conference. Signing the bill into law would go a long way towards clarifying what level of influence Benjamin – whose legislative district included a disproportionate number of people of color affected by mass incarceration – might have as Hochul tries to strike a balance between reformers and their political opponents. “It was a question mark and that question still remains,” Marvin Mayfield, statewide organizer for the advocacy group The Center for Community Alternatives, said in an interview. “I think he can persuade her to come on board with these things.” Signing the bill, which passed both chambers of the state Legislature by comfortable margins, into law is one quick way to demonstrate Benjamin’s newfound influence on the Second Floor. 

At the same time, Benjamin’s role on a state Senate task force in hashing out details to a partial roll back of bail reforms demonstrates a willingness to be pragmatic on such issues. Bringing people together, in fact, will be a big part of his new job as lieutenant governor, he said after getting sworn in Thursday. “We will make sure every voice is at the table,” Benjamin told reporters Thursday. “That's the theme of this administration: collaboration.” He will lead a new gubernatorial task force on the notorious problems afflicting the New York City Housing Authority, which has a high number of developments in his former state Senate district though he did not offer any details on who would be on it, or whether it would offer any recommendations before the April 1 state budget deadline. “Perhaps a task force serves a political agenda,” Charles King, CEO of the advocacy group Housing Works, said in an interview. “And that's okay (but) what I've seen is that task forces end up serving more as cover for doing nothing.” The new lieutenant governor will also oversee his own team of gubernatorial staff to help Hochul make good on speeding up the delivery of state aid to tenants and landlords across the state. What will Benjamin do on addressing vaccine hesitancy in a state where about a quarter of eligible people have yet to get shots? “She wants to make sure that I am part of the team that goes around the state to make sure that people know that the vaccine is the answer,” Benjamin told reporters.

Benjamin has little formal power as lieutenant governor beyond nominally serving as the head of the state Senate. That means Hochul can take or leave his advice as she sees fit. The fact that she is talking up his role in her administration reflects a wider effort to show how she will be a different type of leader than ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was known for relying on a small circle of top advisors, but she is also trying to inherit much of his political support as she and Benjamin get ready to run for a full term in office next year. That would seemingly include people like Hazel Dukes of the NAACP, Manhattan Democratic Party Chair Keith Wright and activist Tamika Mallory – all of whom were present Thursday as Benjamin got sworn in as her successor – “Harlem royalty,” as Todd-Medina put it. That could help Hochul compete against the likes of Attorney General Letitia James, who has deep support among Black voters in her native Brooklyn, in a Democratic primary next year, but that all depends on what Benjamin does as lieutenant governor – and how much Hochul really leans on his advice in the upcoming months. 

If New Yorkers learned nothing else Thursday morning, it was that Hochul and Benjamin have political fates that are increasingly intertwined as their respective Democratic primaries heat up. “It is my intention to run for lieutenant governor in the upcoming election and I will be supporting Gov. Hochul in her race as well,” Benjamin said Thursday for the first time publicly. “Working on real issues … that's what the governor wants me to do and I will work closely to make sure that that happens.”