ALBANY — The resignation of Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin last week after he was arrested on corruption charges provides an opportunity for the two candidates running against him in the June Democratic primary.
Although the impact of Benjamin's resignation on the primary race for lieutenant governor is uncertain, for now the race has opened up for candidates Diana Reyna and Ana Maria Archila, who are seeking statewide office for the first time.
Reyna is running with Rep. Tom Suozzi, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, and Archila is running with New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who also is seeking the gubernatorial nomination. Suozzi and Williams are running against Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Under state election law, lieutenant governor candidates run separately in party primaries, then appear on a single ticket in November’s general election with the winner of the primary for governor. Usually that means running mates are on the same ticket. But Benjamin’s resignation as Hochul’s No. 2 has let loose a wide range of possibilities for the lieutenant governor’s spot, political scientists said.
“The field for lieutenant governor is quite open,” said Craig Burnett, a professor of political science at Hofstra University. “The negative headlines and resignation of Brian Benjamin certainly open the door for anyone to win.”
Pollsters and political scientists, however, agree there’s no way to pick a front-runner now in a traditionally low-interest race in a primary, which traditionally attracts a low turnout among voters.
“The Democratic primary for lieutenant governor last week was going to be the winner among three largely unknown candidates,” said Steven Greenberg of the Siena College Research Institute poll on Thursday. “The Democratic primary for lieutenant governor as of today is unclear. It’s no more predictable than it was before.”
A Siena poll in March showed Williams ahead of Suozzi, which could be favorable to Archila. But state Board of Elections records show Suozzi has millions of dollars more in his campaign account than Williams, which could favor Reyna. As a more progressive candidate, Archila also may have an advantage in a primary, which usually attracts the most liberal Democrats.
As for Hochul, she has commanding leads in the polls and in financing over Suozzi and Williams.
Burnett agreed it’s hard to predict how voters will react to Benjamin’s departure after just eight months in a low-visibility job.
“Brian Benjamin’s tenure was short,” Burnett said. “So, most voters are probably only vaguely familiar with the name. The average voter cares little about the running mate. In the end, the top of the ticket is what drives votes.”
Not even the roster is set. Democrats will have a hard time removing Benjamin from the primary ballot and under state election law, although several scenarios are possible. If he stays on the ballot, Benjamin could even win the seat from which he resigned.
“The governor doesn’t have a lot of good options right now,” said Shawn Donahue, a political-science professor at the University at Buffalo. “They just have to be looking at any way to get him off the ballot right now.”
“It’s uncharted territory,” Donahue said. “I think there is a good chance this could end up in court.”
The scenarios to take Benjamin off the ballot or to replace him include:
- The Democratic-led State Legislature could pass a new law that would allow Benjamin to take his name off the ballot and allow another running mate to join Hochul.
- Hochul could appoint Archila or Rayna as her lieutenant governor. That, however, would mean taking on a No. 2 who has campaigned against her administration.
- Benjamin could move out of state. The indictment against him confines him to New York, Virginia and Georgia before trial. Benjamin reportedly has relatives in Virginia.
- Democrats could nominate Benjamin for an Assembly seat, for which he wouldn’t campaign. Election law could allow him to then remove himself as a lieutenant governor candidate.
Hochul said Wednesday that she’s weighing her options.
“We are looking into it,” she said. “The laws are very complicated. I don’t know the answer at the moment, (but) I’m not worried about it.”
Political scientists, however, say there are plenty of concerns.
“We could certainly see a situation where the governor and lieutenant governor are not from the same ticket,” Burnett said. “It would definitely turn some heads. But winning is essential, and, in reality, politics is known for making strange bedfellows.”
It’s happened before. In 1982, Alfred DelBello was the running mate of New York City Mayor Ed Koch when Koch ran for governor. Koch lost to Mario Cuomo, but DelBello beat Cuomo’s running make, H. Carl McCall, who was a state senator and would later become state comptroller. DelBello, a former Westchester County executive, served two years during which Cuomo gave him little responsibility, prompting DelBello to resign.
In most administrations, lieutenant governors act as envoys across the state for the governor to meet with business and local government leaders to promote the administration's policies and spending.
“Whoever is nominated, both will have an interest in working together to get elected,” said Gerald Benjamin, retired distinguished professor of political science at the State University of New York at New Paltz. “What happens after the election will depend upon the governor's willingness to include the lieutenant governor in governance.”