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Lawmaker's proposal would make it easier to remove the former lieutenant governor from the ballot

In this file photo, Gov. Kathy Hochul and state Sen. Brian Benjamin appear at an event on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in Harlem, where Hochul announced Benjamin would be her lieutenant governor.
Darren McGee/Darren McGee- Office of the Gove
In this file photo, Gov. Kathy Hochul and state Sen. Brian Benjamin appear at an event on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in Harlem, where Hochul announced Benjamin would be her lieutenant governor.

A new proposal sponsored by a New York state Assembly member would make it easier to remove a candidate from office if they are charged with a crime.

The measure, if approved, could enable Gov. Kathy Hochul to rid herself of her former running mate, Brian Benjamin, who resigned as lieutenant governor earlier this week after being indicted on federal corruption charges.

Benjamin’s resignation on Tuesday presents a quandary for Hochul in the upcoming June primary.

Benjamin’s name will still be on the ballot, because it’s very difficult in New York to remove someone’s name, even if they have decided not to run. Under current law, Benjamin would have to move from the state, run for another office, or die.

The rules are not part of the state’s constitution, but are instead written in statute. That means they can be changed, Assembly member Amy Paulin said.

She is proposing a bill that would provide for a “special circumstance declination” and allow a candidate to choose to remove their name from the ballot if they are charged with a crime, have a life-threatening illness, or have resigned from the office that they were nominated or designated to run for election.

“This is a bill that makes a lot of sense,” said Paulin. “And sometimes, there’s an opportunity.”

Candidates would have until May 1 for a primary and Sept. 1 for a general election to remove their names from the ballot. That would leave enough time, supporters say, for absentee ballots to be printed and distributed.

Like Hochul, Paulin is a Democrat, and Democrats control both houses of the Legislature, increasing the likelihood that the bill or a similar measure could be approved.

Susan Lerner with the government reform group Common Cause said the current laws are antiquated and are designed to keep political parties in control of the candidate selection process.

“The problem with our election law, is that too frequently, what you feel is the dead hand of Tammany Hall allowing the parties to maintain a stranglehold on the process,” Lerner said. “Which is what you have in the nomination and declination procedure that’s currently in our law."

Republicans argue that Hochul, who said she didn’t know about a federal corruption investigation into Benjamin when she chose him, should not be rewarded for her mistake.

In a statement, state GOP Chair Nick Langworthy said Democrats in the Legislature are colluding with Hochul to “sweep their corruption under the rug” and trying to rewrite the law to “save Kathy Hochul’s political career.”

Lerner said the proposal is not about favoring one political party over another. She said both Democratic and Republican state leaders have been indicted -- and in some cases, convicted of crimes -- in the past several years. She said the changes would benefit the voters.

“The voters shouldn’t be faced with a ballot that allows them to vote for somebody who is not going to take the office,” she said. “And in essence, encourages them to throw their votes away. That’s simply wrong and unfair.”

Even if the Legislature were to change the rules and allow Benjamin’s name to be removed from the ballot, Hochul could not immediately name a new running mate to be placed on the June ballot.

Benjamin remains the designee of the state Democratic Party, which chose him as its candidate for lieutenant governor at its convention in late February. The party would have to reconvene to choose a new candidate.

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.