Gov. Kathy Hochul at the New York State Democratic Committee...

Gov. Kathy Hochul at the New York State Democratic Committee nominating convention in New York City in February. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

ALBANY — In January, Gov. Kathy Hochul was called by some political observers the prohibitive favorite in this year’s election for governor

She had raised a record-breaking $25 million in campaign funds. The person believed to be her most formidable foe had dropped out. She had a goody-filled state budget everyone seemed to love.

Then came April.

Budget secrecy and surprises undermined good will among some legislators. The field for governor has grown, not dissipated.

And her first major act in office — the selection of Brian Benjamin as her lieutenant governor — blew up in her face when he was indicted on federal corruption charges Tuesday and abruptly resigned.

Analysts said Hochul still has the power of incumbency and a huge lead in the polls, but she took a political hit that could change the campaign’s dynamics. The question is: To what degree has the race for governor changed?

“Suddenly, it's no cakewalk,” said Gerald Benjamin, a retired distinguished professor of political science at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

He said the fight over the $220 billion state budget divided Democrats and energized the left, especially on the issues of bail laws and state financing of the Buffalo Bills stadium. The Brooklyn subway shooting kept crime in the headlines.

And the Brian Benjamin scandal, he said, means “now the governor’s judgment is suspect.”

Others agreed, saying the string of events have provided fodder for opponents while stressing that Hochul still is the clear front-runner.

“The narrative has now changed dramatically and Hochul has stumbled out of the bumbled budget process into a crisis moment with Benjamin's resignation/scandal,” said Lisa Parshall, political scientist at Daemen University in suburban Buffalo.

Parshall added that Hochul, after the first 24 hours of the Benjamin scandal, “seemed to recover quickly in that she sounded in control in her lengthy interviews … that's what she needs to do to regain the narrative.”

“I think she is able to survive this because she still has incredible advantages,” said Doug Muzzio, a Baruch College political scientist.

Hochul became governor less than eight months ago, when Andrew M. Cuomo resigned as he faced a likely impeachment vote by the State Legislature in a sexual harassment scandal.

Hochul and Benjamin at a news conference in Harlem in...

Hochul and Benjamin at a news conference in Harlem in August 2021. Credit: Chris Ware

She immediately made history by becoming New York’s first woman governor and declared on her first day she would be running in 2022. Days later, she tapped Benjamin, then a state senator from Harlem, to be lieutenant governor in what many saw as a way to bolster her election chances, especially with the party’s progressive wing.

Hochul steadily rose in the polls — and still has a commanding lead — and rapidly cranked up a fundraising machine that helped push Attorney General Letitia James to reconsider and drop her bid for governor, just weeks after jumping in. The latest Siena College poll found 52% of Democrats surveyed said they favored Hochul in the June primary, compared with 12% for New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and 11% for Rep. Tom Suozzi of Glen Cove.

In another break, a flood of federal aid and a quicker-than-expected economic recovery eliminated New York’s seemingly annual budget shortfall. And Hochul unveiled a plan in January that promised spending increases that even won some praise from Republicans.

But there were wobbles on the way to adopting a budget.

Hochul announced a deal with the Buffalo Bills for a new stadium. It calls for more than $600 million in state taxpayers’ money, but she said she’d offset it with a $418 million settlement with the Seneca Nation over casino revenues.

Still, many lawmakers — and campaign rivals — criticized the deal as the most lucrative ever given to an NFL team. Others were irked the governor kept negotiations secret and threw the stadium deal into the budget just days before it was adopted.

Similarly, some — especially on the left — were upset that she proposed a series of bail law amendments not long before the budget deadline.

So when the budget was adopted nine days after the deadline, much of the talk wasn’t about generous education, environmental and transportation expansions Hochul delivered but about bail and the stadium.

Three days later, Benjamin was indicted on bribery, wire fraud and falsification of records charges in an alleged scheme involving trading a state grant for campaign contributions. He resigned hours after being arraigned and pleading not guilty.

Combined, the events have given Hochul’s rivals fresh attack lines.

“Let’s look at the four Bs: Benjamin, bail, budget and Buffalo Bills. She’s shown a lack judgment on each,” said Suozzi.

Suozzi ran into his own problem this week when a congressional ethics committee said it was considering taking action against him for what his office called a failure to file required stock transaction reports in a timely manner. Suozzi blamed it on a “misunderstanding.”

On the Republican side, gubernatorial candidate Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said: “Kathy Hochul’s priorities are upside down” and her “judgment is terrible.”

Another GOP contender, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, said: “Every decision Kathy Hochul has made has been the wrong one.” And business executive Harry Wilson said it was “time to clean house” in Albany.

Also in April, candidates wanting to supplant Hochul took an important step by submitting petitions to qualify for the ballot. Suozzi and  Williams qualified for the Democratic primary in June.

Zeldin is the GOP’s official designee but Astorino, Wilson and Andrew Giuliani were among those submitting petitions to run in a state primary. Zeldin allies now have launched a legal process to try to disqualify his rivals' petitions.

Grant Reeher, a Syracuse University political scientist, said Hochul has faced a few small bumps since she became governor, but the Benjamin collapse is on another scale.

“There had been a few hiccups prior to this, though nothing that would have made me think she’s in trouble,” Reeher said. “This could hurt a lot more. She picked him. It was one of the most important decisions she made early on and she framed it that way.”

Muzzio said the Benjamin issue “obviously hurts.” But he said it’s not clear, for now, if a scandal involving a lieutenant governor can generate enough momentum for any of Hochul’s rivals.

“She still has incredible advantages,” Muzzio said. “She’s got the big endorsements. She’s got the (campaign) money. And she’s divvied up this budget in a way that everyone gets something.”

With Michael Gormley

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