New York, NY – January 6, 2022: Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin speaks at Vigil for Democracy on anniversary of insurrection at Carl Schurz park. (Shutterstock)
By Rebecca C. Lewis, City and State NY
The will-they/won’t-they dance of removing former Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin from the June primary ballot may come to a close by the end of the day as state lawmakers prepare to vote on legislation that would allow Gov. Kathy Hochul to replace her indicted running mate. The question of whether the state Legislature would approve such a bill has dominated Albany the past few weeks, with opinions on the issue divided.
Bill language came late Friday night when state Sen. Liz Krueger and Assembly Member Amy Paulin introduced new legislation on behalf of the governor to remove Benjamin from the ballot. It would allow any nominated or designated candidate to decline their place on the ballot if they have been indicted for or convicted of a crime. Paulin had previously introduced similar legislation that would have had the same effect, but until now no such bill existed in the state Senate. Majority Leader Andrea-Stewart Cousins reportedly told Krueger to hold off introducing the legislation. A spokesperson for the state Senate Democrats had initially stated that the chamber would not take up any bill to get Benjamin off the ballot, and Stewart-Cousins herself expressed resistance to changing election rules in the middle of a cycle. A spokesperson for Stewart-Cousins did not return a request for comment on what has changed between then and now.
In a statement to City & State, Krueger said it is “common sense” legislation that she introduced. “If there is a candidate who has been indicted on corruption charges, who has resigned from the office they’re running for because of that indictment, and who wants to be removed from the ballot, I don’t believe our laws should require that candidate to remain on the ballot,” she said. The bill she introduced would still permit Democrats and Hochul to choose a replacement for the June primary, something that has garnered significant criticism. But Krueger played down the concerns about that aspect of the bill. “Whoever is chosen by the committee on vacancy will have to make their case in a three-way primary,” she said, referring to the body officially tasked with picking someone to replace Benjamin. “In the end, the voters will decide, not the governor or the Legislature.”
Any candidate on the ballot will have a committee on vacancies selected well beforehand should the need arise to replace them. The committee that would select a replacement for Benjamin has seven members, including state Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs, the Brooklyn Democrats Chair and Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn and former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Also included are Assembly Member Catalina Cruz and Suffolk County Democratic Party Chair Rich Schaffer. None of those members responded to requests or could be reached for comment.
The legislation could get approved as soon as today. On the state Senate side, the bill went straight to the Rules Committee, the last stop for most bills before heading to the floor for a full vote. Bills in that committee generally get approved shortly before the start of the session that day so they are ready for a vote immediately after. On the Assembly side, the Election Law Committee was scheduled to consider the bill Monday afternoon. It too could be ready for a vote by the end of the day. Assembly Member Latrice Walker, who chairs the Election Law Committee, was not immediately available for an interview about the legislation. Nor was state Sen. Zellnor Myrie, chair of his chamber’s Elections Committee, which was bypassed as the bill went straight to the Rules Committee.
As lawmakers prepared to vote on the legislation, it continued to garner intense criticism from legislators and candidates alike. “This is a tailor-made bill for the situation,” Diana Reyna, a candidate for lieutenant governor, said in a Monday morning press conference. “It is an act of desperation, and when people are desperate, people make mistakes.” She asserted that Hochul is “pressuring” lawmakers into approving the bill rather than allowing the voters to decide between her and fellow candidate Ana María Archila. “The Democratic governor should not be allowed to change the law, or circumvent the law, when it’s convenient for them,” Reyna said, later adding that she has not spoken to the Hochul campaign about the situation.
Archila spoke to reporters in Albany on Monday as well, echoing Reyna’s sentiments. “What the governor is doing today forced the legislators to spend time on a bill that is essentially just for her benefit,” Archila said. “It’s actually a distraction from the real work that legislators need to be doing right now.” She urged lawmakers to reject the bill, although she said she would not try to reach out to any of the members of the committee on vacancies if the legislation does become law.
Archila was joined by Assembly Member Ron Kim, who also denounced the bill’s timing in particular. “This is what every voter, every person in New York hates about Albany politics, changing the rules in the middle of the game,” Kim told reporters. “Rules for me, not for thee.” He was not alone in that thinking. Assembly Member Robert Carroll, a member of the Election Law Committee, said in a tweet that he would vote against the legislation in that committee. “I don’t disagree w/ removing his name but I do disagree w/ letting committee on vacancies choose a replacement,” Carroll wrote. “Already have an election btwn (Archila and Reyna).” Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani also tweeted that he would have voted no on the bill when it came before the entire chamber if he were not observing Eid al-Fitr.
At an event in the Bronx, Hochul said she was “pleased” that lawmakers agreed to take up the legislation that would allow Benjamin to come off the ballot. And she confirmed that she would seek a replacement, but did not offer any indication whom she and the committee on vacancies may choose.