On Tuesday (April 12), New York’s lieutenant governor, Brian Benjamin, resigned from office after federal prosecutors indicted him for allegedly spearheading a scheme to fund two of his recent campaigns with illegal donations. Though Benjamin pleaded not guilty, his political career is over.
Benjamin’s arrest and resignation is the biggest political crisis Kathy Hochul has ever faced. Hochul, who replaced the disgraced Andrew Cuomo last year, promised a scandal-free administration that would mark a clean break from the Cuomo years, when close aides and allies of the power-mad governor went to prison. Instead, Hochul’s pick for lieutenant governor has become just the latest New York politician to face a federal indictment.
Hochul, unlike Cuomo, was not directly involved in the scandal rocking her administration. Benjamin was allegedly overseeing schemes that involved donations to his bids for state senate and city comptroller. A former state senator, Benjamin had mounted a failed bid for comptroller in 2021 before Hochul tapped him to be her lieutenant governor, in part because she wanted to shore up her support with Black voters in New York City ahead of running for a full term herself in 2022.
Although Benjamin reportedly lied on his financial disclosure form before being appointed lieutenant governor, Hochul still deserves blame for choosing Benjamin over other qualified candidates. Reports had surfaced about improprieties in Benjamin’s comptroller campaign at the start of 2021. And questions had long been raised about his ethics. He was not well-regarded in Albany and not someone who should ever have been a heartbeat away from the governor’s mansion.
Because of New York’s byzantine and outdated election law, it will be incredibly hard to remove Benjamin from the ballot before the June primary. Resigning from office isn’t enough. Which means it’s still likely Benjamin will be a choice for voters two months from now. (New York Democrats could explore the option of changing the law in the state legislature to allow Benjamin to be easily removed from the ballot.)
Meanwhile, progressives in New York have been gifted a tremendous opportunity. The Working Families Party (WFP) and various activist groups are supporting Ana María Archila in a primary that was supposed to be an uphill battle against a viable, well-funded Benjamin. Archila cofounded Make the Road New York, a prominent immigrant rights group, and was a director of the Center for Popular Democracy. She is closely aligned with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and has the potential to raise a significant amount of money and build a strong volunteer army.
If Archila wins the primary, she would be on the Democratic ticket with Hochul in the general election, assuming the new governor, with her $20 million war chest, dispatches her own primary challengers, including Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate who is challenging her from the left and, like Archila, has been endorsed by the WFP. But Williams will have a much harder time winning than Archila.
Beyond Benjamin, Archila must contend with another Latina, Diana Reyna, who is aligned with the conservative Democrat running against Hochul, Tom Suozzi. Reyna used to work for Eric Adams before he was elected mayor of New York City and could potentially pose a threat to Archila if she is able to aggressively fundraise. One other complication could be backroom maneuvering from the Hochul camp; the governor might decide it’s worth spending money to prop up Reyna, a fellow moderate. Suozzi himself has called for Hochul to appoint Reyna her lieutenant governor. Barring changes to election law or some other complicated maneuver, though, the new appointee wouldn’t be able to appear in the Democratic primary at all. The new lieutenant governor would simply serve until the conclusion of 2022.
On one hand, the stakes of the lieutenant governor’s race are not that high. The post is largely powerless and has traditionally been little more than a place for a political ally of the governor to cut ribbons and speak at press conferences. Hochul was a cheerleader for the Cuomo administration. Archila, though, has the potential to remake the office, even if Hochul seeks to marginalize her.
If Archila manages to win the primary and the Democratic ticket prevails in November, progressive activists will have, for the first time, one of their own in a statewide position. Archila could become a strong candidate for governor one day. Or, even if she never gets there, she can still use her bully pulpit to fight for groups that are typically overlooked in Albany, like working-class tenants and undocumented immigrants. Progressives and socialists will have a partner in the Hochul administration, one who could apply pressure on a governor who’d prefer not to tack too far left.
In the meantime, the left institutions of New York must take the Archila bid seriously and do their best to raise the millions needed to combat inevitable attacks from wealthy interests and their super PACs. Benjamin’s downfall means Archila becomes both a top candidate and a top target. New York is rife with former Cuomo donors (and current Hochul backers) who would happily fund independent expenditures against her, flooding the airwaves across the state in the weeks leading up to the primary. In January, Williams had less than $200,000 in his gubernatorial account, an anemic sum for a statewide race. To actually win, Archila will have to do much better.