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Hochul picks Harlem Senator Benjamin as Lieutenant Governor

State Sen. Brian Benjamin embraces Gov. Kathy Hochul during an event in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in New York. Hochul has selected Benjamin as her choice for lieutenant governor.
Mary Altaffer
/
Associated Press
State Sen. Brian Benjamin embraces Gov. Kathy Hochul during an event in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in New York. Hochul has selected Benjamin as her choice for lieutenant governor.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul held her first public appearance with her choice of lieutenant governor, Brian Benjamin, who until this week was a state Senator from Harlem.

Benjamin, 44, born to Caribbean immigrant parents, is a graduate of Brown University and Harvard Business School. Like Governor Hochul, he began in politics by holding local office while working as an investment banker, and eventually was elected to the state Senate in a special election in 2017. The seat was once held by David Paterson, who left the Senate to become lieutenant governor, and later governor, when former Governor Eliot Spitzer resigned in a sex scandal. Benjamin addressed a rally in Harlem.

“I never in a million years would have imagined I would be standing here as the lieutenant governor of the state of New York,” Benjamin said to cheers. “But God has bigger plans for me.”

Benjamin is a strong criminal justice reform advocate, and he co-sponsored bills to end most forms of cash bail and strictly limit solitary confinement in state prisons, among other measures. He’s also a backer of the so-called defund the police movement, which advocates for shifting resources away from police and into social services when dealing with drug addiction, the mentally ill and the homeless. He said he will help Hochul with the state’s major challenges, including fighting the spreading COVID-19 Delta variant.

“We have so many fights that we have to wage, gun violence in our community,” said Benjamin, who said homelessness and affordable housing are also “massive problems.”

“We just thought we were getting out of COVID,” said Benjamin. “And here we are, we’ve got to put the mask back on.”

The rally also featured remarks by the Reverend Al Sharpton and NAACP President Hazel Dukes, who former Governor Andrew Cuomo called his “second mother.” Dukes publicly split with Cuomo after the Attorney General’s report on August 3 found he sexually harassed 11 women. Cuomo resigned August 23.

Hochul, who claimed Dukes for herself, calling the NAACP leader her “mom on earth,” said she’s no stranger to Harlem and the needs of its residents. She’s pledged a renewed push to get more New Yorkers vaccinated. Black New Yorkers have been vaccinated at significantly lower rates than white New Yorkers.

“Let’s take those vaccination members and put them through the roof,” Hochul urged the crowd. “Let’s start saving lives.”

Hochul, who is from Buffalo, said she wants to seek election as governor in 2022. The choice of an African-American from downstate as a running mate would help balance out the ticket.

The choice of Benjamin as Lieutenant Governor was praised by progressive groups. Citizen Action, in a statement, said it’s chance to “push forward a people’s agenda that benefits the many and not only the wealthy and well-connected.”

But the appointment received blowback from the state’s Conservative Party, which said in a statement that Hochul is “declaring war on police funding,” and making a “political calculation" to cater to the party’s left.

Though Benjamin was announced as lieutenant governor today, he won’t be officially sworn in until after Labor Day, so that a special election for his Senate seat can coincide with the scheduled November elections. Hochul said she wants to save the taxpayers money by not holding a separate vote.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.