Dem controlled legislature circle wagons to knock disgraced Benjamin off ballot

Gov. Kathy Hochul at a housing event in the Co-op City. Monday, May 2, 2022.
Photo by Kevin P. Coughlin / Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

The Assembly Committee on Election Law voted to approve a bill Monday that would help Gov. Kathy Hochul finally boot her disgraced former Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin from the June primary ballot following his arrest and resignation over federal bribery charges. 

The legislation – A10135 – which was introduced by Assembly Member Amy Paulin (D – Westchester), would allow any nominated or designated candidate charged or convicted of a crime to remove their name from the ballot. According to committee chair Latrice Walker (D – Brooklyn), if the bill passes and Benjamin takes his name off the ballot, Hochul can then choose a new candidate within four days of her former number two’s declination.

The Senate version of the bill, S8949, was introduced by state Sen. Liz Kruger (D – Manhattan).

The bill is being debated on the floors of both the Assembly and Senate as of this posting. According to rumors from pundits, the measure could pass as early as tonight after post time.

Benjamin resigned last month after he was inchited on federal bribery charges over allegations that he directed $50,000 in state funds to a Harlem-based non-profit when he was the area’s state Senator in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to his failed campaign for city comptroller and Senate revelation campaign.

In a video statement posted to Twitter Tuesday, Benjamin said he would remove himself from the ballot if the measure ultimately passes.

“I believe that withdrawing from the ballot is the right thing to do,” Benjamin said. “And that is why I will sign the necessary paperwork to withdraw from the ballot.”

According to a published report, Hochul told reporters in the Bronx Tuesday she was “pleased” the legislature had taken up the bill and would name a replacement for Benjamin – but declined to comment on who she would pick.

The committee approved the bill by a 10 to 6 vote, with two Democrats – Brooklyn Assembly Members Robert Carroll and Emily Gallagher – and four Republicans dissenting. Carroll said that while he understands Hochul’s desire to get Benjamin off the primary ballot, he doesn’t support this legislation because it’ll give Hochul the chance to pick a replacement.

“Today’s bill concerns me tremendously. Hasty laws make for bad public policy,” Carroll said. “Further the declination process is fraught with issues and inequities. I can respect that Gov. Hochul feels like she has egg on her face because her chosen Lieutenant Governor candidate has now been indicted in federal court. And I can respect that we as the legislature could say, ‘we would like to find a way for him to gracefully exit the ballot.’ What I don’t understand is that we would then allow for the governor and her appointed committee on vacancies to place another candidate on the ballot.”

Carroll said he takes issue with this because Benjamin never petitioned to get on the ballot in the first place, as he was designated as the Democratic Party’s nominee along with Hochul during its convention in February. Also, the Assembly Member added, he feels they shouldn’t be giving Hochul another chance to pick a Lieutenant Governor candidate after picking Benjamin.

“Now, we are not only allowing for him to leave gracefully to save face for this governor, but we are allowing this same governor who had such bad judgment in the first place to pick another person to be on that Lieutenant Governor ballot,” Carroll said. “I think it’s a terrible precedent to set. Declarations are sometimes a necessary evil. But we should not bend so easily to [Hochul’s] will.”

Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz (D – Bronx) forcefully pushed back on Carroll’s arguments in favor of the measure. Dinowitz said Carroll’s argument that Hochul shouldn’t be trusted with another lieutenant governor pick after choosing someone who was ultimately indicted “isn’t fair” because Hochul didn’t know about Benjamin’s misdeeds when she appointed him.

“If only the governor had access to secret information regarding a pending indictment, she undoubtedly would have made a different choice,” Dinowitz said. “But to say that she made a bad decision based on information, or at least some information, which was not available to her really isn’t fair.”

However, recent reporting from The New York Times revealed that Hochul and her team chose Benjamin after a rushed vetting process where they ignored red flags about his potential campaign finance violations.

Additionally, Dinowitz said he supports the measure because he doesn’t think a “bad law” should stand in the way of voters have more choices in the primary.

“So, we have a setup now where because people can’t easily get off the ballot, we go through all these contortions to try to accomplish what we want,” Dinowitz said. “Maybe the whole law regarding declination needs to be changed. But we have the situation here immediately. And I think this is the right thing to do. We want to give the voters the opportunity to have as many choices as possible of people who aren’t indicted. And this is one way to do that.”

U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D – Long Island, Queens), who’s running against Hochul in the Democratic primary, said his issue is not with the bill itself but the fact that the bill was timed to help Hochul in the primary.

“The question arises not about the law, but about its timing,” Suozzi said. “There’s no question that this is happening now, to save Kathy Hochul’s hide or try to save her hide. Why didn’t she push for this legislation before now? Why is she pushing it over the weekend, for a law that’s going to change things so dramatically? Would she have done the same if a problem arose with my running mate or with Jumaane Williams’ running mate?”

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R- Long Island), the Republican Party and Conservative Party designee candidate for governor said the Democratic-controlled legislature advancing a new bill to swap out Benjamin from the primary ballot is an attempt for Hochul to triple down and cover for him right up until his arrest, indictment and resignation.

“This week in the New York State Legislature, the Democrats are planning to move the goal posts and change the law just before the election to swap out Brian Benjamin from the ballot. Amazing to watch the Dems all climbing aboard the same deflated lifeboat to sink together. This will not end well for them,” said Zeldin.