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Politics and Government

Hochul picks Harlem state Sen. Brian Benjamin as lieutenant governor

Darren McGee
Office of the Governor
Gov. Kathy Hochul with State Sen. Brian Benjamin, who will become Hochul's lieutenant governor

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday 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. His political career started by holding a local office while working as an investment banker.

He was elected to the state Senate in a special election in 2017. The seat was once held by David Paterson, who also left the Senate to become lieutenant governor. Paterson later became governor when former Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in a sex scandal.

On Thursday, Benjamin addressed a crowd rallying 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 had bigger plans for me.”

Benjamin is a strong criminal justice reform advocate. 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 people addicted to drugs, mentally ill individuals, and the homeless.

He said he will help Hochul with the state’s major challenges, including fighting the spreading delta variant of the coronavirus.

“We have so many fights that we have to wage,” said Benjamin, who added gun violence, homelessness and affordable housing are huge problems.

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

The rally also featured remarks by the Rev. Al Sharpton and NAACP President Hazel Dukes, whom former Gov. Andrew Cuomo called his “second mother.” Dukes publicly split with Cuomo after Attorney General Tish James' report released 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 numbers 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 could help balance out the ticket.

Progressive groups praised the choice of Benjamin as lieutenant governor. Citizen Action said in a statement that it’s a chance to “push forward with 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 on Thursday, 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.