Gov. Kathy Hochul claims to be seeing a silver lining in the political clouds shadowing the downfall of former Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, who resigned Tuesday following a federal indictment related to an alleged bribery conspiracy. Benjamin has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
“It's an opportunity for us to reset,” Hochul said Wednesday during an appearance on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, which was scheduled prior to Benjamin’s arrest. “It was very unfortunate, very disappointing for me personally, how this played out."
The governor has made several moves over the past day to protect her political position following Benjamin’s arrest. She focused her time Tuesday on a deadly subway shooting before announcing Benjamin’s resignation later in the day, which gave her time for behind-the-scenes maneuvering while projecting her prioritization of public safety. Hochul then appeared on WNYC Wednesday to project confidence about her political future despite the ongoing fallout from her former No. 2 while she continues claiming that she has changed political culture in the Capitol for the better. Benjamin will still likely still be on the ballot in the June Democratic primary,
"We don't know right now at this time,” she told WNYC about getting Benjamin off the ballot by either getting him nominated for another office, or convincing him to move out of state while he remains on bond, either of which might allow her to pick a new running mate under state law. “This is something we're looking into, but you're right. The laws are very complicated."
Democratic and Republican rivals have attacked the governor over the past day for sticking by claims that she has transformed political culture in Albany despite the downfall of Benjamin, who had a long track record of alleged ethical malfeasance before prosecutors formally accused him of five criminal counts – Benjamin has pleaded not guilty on all of them – related to allegedly swapping state grant money for fraudulent donations to his 2019 campaign for New York City comptroller. Media reports have also highlighted alleged ethical lapses with the governor as well when it comes to fundraising and the use of state aircraft for political purposes.
“She's failing, and she's showing a lack of experience and a lack of judgment,” Rep. Thomas Suozzi, who is running against Hochul in the Democratic primary for governor, said at a virtual press conference Wednesday alongside his running mate, former New York City Council Member Diana Reyna, a political moderate. “It's so clear with the issue of the lieutenant governor.” Other gubernatorial candidates, including progressive New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin, have made similar remarks.
The first move by the governor was to prioritize the subway shooting, which injured at least 16 people, over politics. “The best, smartest thing she could do was get to Brooklyn, which she did, and get in front of those cameras, which she did,” political consultant Hank Sheinkopf told City & State Tuesday.
Hochul did not elaborate on Benjamin from the scene of the tragedy. “I'll be happy to report on that later today. We'll have a statement out there. I have not had the chance to speak with him,” Hochul told reporters while leaving a press conference with other elected officials near the Brooklyn site of the subway shooting. She then said nothing more about Benjamin until announcing his resignation about five hours later via a press release.
Her Wednesday interview on WNYC was her first about Benjamin after his arrest. As recently as last week, she expressed total confidence in him despite revelations about subpoenas from Manhattan prosecutors that he did not disclose before getting appointed as lieutenant governor. “He filled out the background check forms," Hochul said Wednesday of her decision to pick Benjamin last August. "We had been told that everything that had risen up had been addressed. You know, everything was clean and that's what we are told, but I made the best decision I could with the information I had at that time." She added her support for strengthening vetting procedures without offering specifics.
Hochul added that she is still deciding on who she might want to appoint as her new lieutenant governor. State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who has yet to speak publicly about Benjamin’s resignation, automatically holds the post while there is a vacancy. Hochul has the option of appointing a lieutenant governor to finish out Benjamin’s term, which ends in January. She could also theoretically leave Stewart-Cousins as the acting lieutenant governor. The headache will be the upcoming Democratic primary in June, where Benjamin is likely to remain on the ballot, and the general election in November. In the primary, the governor and lieutenant governor run separately. The winners of those two races appear on a joint ticket in the general election, meaning Hochul could be stuck with the running mate of one of her opponents.
The governor denied interest Wednesday in poaching Reyna for her own ticket if she can get Benjamin off the ballot. Selecting Reyna could help Hochul avoid running alongside Ana Maria Archila, a leftwing candidate for lieutenant governor backed by the Working Families Party, in the general election. Reyna has not said whether she would campaign alongside Hochul if Reyna were to win the June primary.
Whoever she might end up picking, it appears the governor is sticking to her core message for the June primaries:
“I pledged that I was going to change the culture in Albany,” Hochul told WNYC. “I'm not going to let any setbacks detract from that ultimate goal which is to let people know we're going to continue changing that culture, and it's going to happen under my watch."
Rebecca C. Lewis contributed reporting.