Gov. Kathy Hochul with then-State Sen. Brian Benjamin after she...

Gov. Kathy Hochul with then-State Sen. Brian Benjamin after she picked him as lieutenant governor, in August 2021. Credit: Chris Ware

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s biggest mistake may not have been that she chose Brian Benjamin as lieutenant governor — but that she appointed anyone in the first place.

Filling her own LG vacancy was unnecessary. It still is, now that Benjamin — plucked by Hochul from the State Senate — has quit under indictment for corrupt acts that allegedly occurred mere months before he became LG last September.

This chapter of Albany craziness, and Hochul's power to put an LG in office before an election, is rooted in a past chapter of Albany craziness.

Before 2009, it was assumed that if the number-two spot became vacant, it would remain so until a new LG could be elected.

The lieutenant’s biggest governmental purpose is to succeed the chief executive, as Hochul did last summer with Andrew M. Cuomo’s resignation. If there is no LG, the Senate majority leader is next in line of succession.

But after David Paterson moved up in 2008 to succeed Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in a sex scandal, the State Senate was in such turmoil between the major party conferences that it was unclear who might claim the upper house's leadership. So jittery Democrats in charge moved to install a lieutenant governor with no electoral ambition, Richard Ravitch, who as part of the job also might preside as needed over the unstable Senate. Despite serious questions about the constitutionality of the move, the state Court of Appeals narrowly upheld that controversial appointment power. For the first time, someone who hadn't won a single vote might occupy the state's highest elected office.

Hochul's use of this power followed a whole different story line — one that couldn't be reasoned away as an operational "emergency" in the legislature. As a new governor from western New York, she saw the political need for a New York City running mate. By appointing Benjamin from Manhattan — widely believed to have been her third or fourth choice after others turned her down — Hochul would signal a "balanced ticket" in the coming election and share an incumbent advantage.

From the outset, Hochul faced possible primary challengers from downstate. Attorney General Letitia James was known to want the job and her fellow Brooklyn resident, city Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, is still in the scrum along with Rep. Tom Suozzi.

In Albany zoology, lieutenant governors stand out as a unique species. Governor and lieutenant governor are elected by a single joint vote in the general election, but run separately in primaries. This means would-be governors sometimes end up in shotgun marriages with their rivals' allies in the number-two spot.

This year, because Benjamin's scandal-scarred departure comes so late, Hochul's party is in a legal bind, scrambling to remove his name from the primary ballot. Special legislation and finding a way to move Benjamin out of state have been discussed as options.

Hochul easily could have balked at appointing Benjamin, whom she had to know was flawed, and waited until she was in a stronger position to pick a better running mate for November. If Hochul were suddenly unable to serve, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a fellow Democrat, would become governor.

Instead, Hochul faces a first-of-its-kind type of Capitol craziness — for not taking the simple route of leaving her former job vacant for a while.

Columnist Dan Janison's opinions are his own