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Hochul announces Harlem senator Benjamin as her lieutenant governor

Gov. Kathy Hochul and state Sen. Brian Benjamin
Darren McGee
Office of the Governor
Gov. Kathy Hochul stands with state Sen. Brian Benjamin, her selection for lieutenant governor, in New York City Thursday.

New York Gov. 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 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 and here we are. We’ve got to put the mask back on,” he said.

The rally also featured remarks by the Rev. Al Sharpton and NAACP President Hazel Dukes, who former Gov. Andrew Cuomo called his “second mother.” Dukes publicly split with Cuomo after the attorney general’s report on Aug. 3 found he sexually harassed 11 women. Cuomo resigned Aug. 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, a Western New York native, 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 a 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, 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 DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.