To the tune of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’s “Empire State of Mind” and a standing ovation, Governor Kathy Hochul officially announced state Senator Brian Benjamin will serve as her lieutenant governor.
Hochul made the announcement outside the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building in Harlem, a neighborhood that falls within the 30th Senate District Benjamin has represented since 2017. During her address she emphasized that unlike her stint as lieutenant governor under former Governor Andrew Cuomo, she will include Benjamin at the table.
“The word partner means something to me,” Hochul said, adding that Benjamin is someone who has “worked the trenches” in responding to his district’s needs.
Benjamin, a born and bred Harlemite, took the stage and said, “I never, in a million years would have imagined I would be standing here as the lieutenant governor of the state of New York.”
Along with elected officials, notable leaders in the Black community were in attendance, including civil rights leaders Reverend Al Sharpton of the National Action Network and Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP’s New York chapter. The event was also attended by Jay Jacobs, New York State Democratic Committee chair, and once a key ally of Cuomo.
The announcement came two days after Hochul was sworn in as New York’s 57th governor.
In New York, the lieutenant governor position has been largely powerless, and often involves crisscrossing the state to champion the governor’s agenda while also serving as the state Senate president.
Hochul, who was wearing a “vaxed” necklace at the event, said that while Benjamin will underscore issues impacting the entire state, he will especially put an emphasis on issues impacting New York City. For Benjamin, those issues include the rise of the delta variant, increased homelessness, and the need for affordable housing.
“I’ve got very big shoes to fill because there has been no lieutenant governor who has traveled this state, all 62 counties, working hard. There’s no one more ready to be governor right now… than Governor Kathy Hochul,” Benjamin said. “But I’m up for the task. I have Harlem on my side.”
Dukes, of the NAACP, called Benjamin loyal and said he will be critical to Hochul’s success.
“You don’t have to look over your shoulders. When you and Brian sit down and make out your plan, he will carry out the plan,” Dukes said.
Benjamin was on the shortlist of prospective successors for Hochul, who had promised that a replacement will indeed come from New York City. Other names under consideration were Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Brooklyn Assemblymember Rodnesye Bichotte Hermelyn, and Bronx state Senator Jamaal Bailey.
Political observers note that by picking a lieutenant governor from New York City, Hochul balances the Democratic ticket as she mounts a run for governor next year. Tapping Benjamin, who is Black, to serve as lieutenant governor opens another avenue to a Black constituency that can peel away votes from other prospective candidates. Among them is Jumaane Williams, the current New York City Comptroller, and state Attorney General Letitia James.
However, political strategist O’Brien Murray is skeptical about whether Benjamin is the right pick to attract that Black voters, citing his lackluster run for comptroller earlier this year. Benjamin had finished fourth, even coming short in his home district. Murray feels that Hochul got “terrible advice” and thinks it shows she’s “out of touch” with the city.
Still, Benjamin’s ties to Harlem, the community, and civil rights groups were repeatedly stressed throughout the Thursday event. Hochul also told reporters that she did her “due diligence” in picking Benjamin.
Derek Perkinson, a field director for the National Action Network, sees Benjamin’s rise as another emblematic sign of the growing power of Black legislators across the city and state.
“This is a new era in politics in New York City,” Perkinson said, predicting that Benjamin won’t be a figurehead leader given his relationships.
“We expect a lot from him,” Perkinson says. “Ceremoniously or not.”
During the event, Hochul noted that Benjamin will be sworn in after Labor Day. A special election for his seat will likely coincide with the November general election, Hochul said, as a way of “saving taxpayer dollars.”