Earlier this year, Brian Benjamin lost the race for New York City comptroller in what was a jarring defeat. A state senator representing Harlem’s 30th District, and long active in progressive politics, Benjamin ran on a social justice platform that included divesting its public pensions from private prisons and increasing the number of city contracts to women and minority-owned business owners.
But around two months after his loss, he got a phone call from New York Governor Kathy Hochul on August 24th, the day she was sworn into office. She asked him to be her lieutenant governor, a position she held herself for six years, though she was effectively marginalized by her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo.
“Governor Hochul said to me when she first called me, ‘I want to have a collaborative government. I want you to be a partner with me in the trenches,’” Benjamin, who will be sworn in on September 9th, recalled. “For me, because I trusted her, I believe in her. That was all I needed.”
Now, the 44-year-old Benjamin is on the cusp of a rare and important political opportunity that puts him one heartbeat away from becoming governor. While his new role has long been deemed ceremonial, being lieutenant governor can put one in a room of some influential players and serve as a springboard to run for future statewide positions.
“It might be running all around the state, but you’re also just making connections and relationships on a level that a state senator just doesn’t have,” Dr. Christina Greer, associate professor of political science and American studies at Fordham University, said. “And as we’ve seen in the past, what? Two governors had to step aside. So one never knows. It’s like fortune favors the bold.”
Benjamin admits this is a position he did not envision when he entered politics four years ago. Back then, he had just won the special election race to represent Harlem, the same neighborhood where he was born, though he grew up in Brooklyn’s Starrett City and later Southeast Queens, living with his mother who immigrated from Guyana in 1974, and a father who would later abandon them.
Following his graduation from Bishop Molloy High School, Benjamin attended Brown University where he got a degree in public policy, and Harvard School of Business, where he obtained an MBA.
Though he worked briefly for a Rhode Island-based gaming company, when he returned to New York City he landed at Morgan Stanley as an investment manager. But it was later, at Genesis Realty, a firm that rehabilitates affordable housing, that he stepped further away from the private sector and closer to public service. In that role, he oversaw renovations for six affordable housing properties across Harlem.
Becoming a familiar face in the neighborhood, Benjamin also served on Manhattan’s Community Board 10, and was plugged in with Harlem’s political establishment, becoming active with the National Action Network.
But it was after the special election in 2017, in which the Manhattan Democratic Party handpicked him to be placed on the ticket, when his trajectory changed, transitioning to a full-time public service. In the four years Benjamin has been in office, 13 of the 200 bills he sponsored were signed into law.
And now, Benjamin has been chosen to serve as lieutenant governor, a position whose powers are ultimately decided by the governor, but he says he trusted Hochul enough to relinquish his senate seat.
“It’s a total function of the relationship with the governor,” Richard Ravitch, the lieutenant governor under Governor David Paterson, said. “I was involved in everything when I was lieutenant governor. I never presumed to make decisions that were his decisions to make.”
Arguably, a lieutenant governor’s main function is balancing the political scales, geographically hailing from another part of the state than the governor. That strategy comes in handy when a governor runs for re-election, and Hochul has already declared she will run next year. By tapping Benjamin, a Black downstate lawmaker, it reveals how integral New York City is toward securing a win, and with him serving as lieutenant, it could mean access to a Black constituency critical to her success.
“Hochul choosing Benjamin doesn’t get rid of [New York Attorney General] Tish James’ supporters by any stretch of the imagination in the Black politics conversation,” Greer said of next year’s race for governor. “It just makes it a little more nuanced in a lot of ways if Tish James decides to throw her hat in the ring.”
Jumaane Williams, the New York City Public Advocate, who has a strong political base in Brooklyn, has also confirmed a gubernatorial run next year.
While Benjamin can amplify the governor’s agenda in his new role, it’s unclear if he can bring in votes next year; according to Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant, he puts the likelihood of Benjamin attracting new voters at 50-50.
Speaking with Gothamist/WNYC, Benjamin believes the race will come down to how well they succeed—should he help Hochul rein in the delta variant, reignite the state’s economic agenda, and get monetary relief to struggling New Yorkers, top priorities for the Hochul administration, the pair “will do well politically.”
With the clock ticking toward the primary, Benjamin is taking up Hochul’s offer in serving as a true collaborator. There will be teeth to the role, according to the two, which includes leading a task force to suss out a “central nervous system” toward improving the New York City Housing Authority. The rest of his policy portfolio will include jumpstarting the economy.
For allies in the state legislature, Benjamin is capable of rising to the challenge.
In interviews with lawmakers, many characterized Benjamin as prepared for the role and primed to serve as governor should the situation arise. Lieutenant governors ascend to the top post should a governor die, resign, or is impeached.
“He’s intelligent, he’s bright and he can hold down that mantle if that opportunity arises. Not that we’re predicting it will, but he’s there,” Assemblymember Al Taylor, whose district mostly overlaps with Benjamin’s, said. “So it’s more than just a ceremonial role, but you do want to have someone highly qualified should they need to be in that space.”
His popularity in the Senate was such that the chamber’s majority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, promoted him to assistant majority leader. And Bronx State Senator Jamaal Bailey, who was among those under consideration for lieutenant governor, said Benjamin is known to “build a consensus and not afraid to make decisions.”
Bailey and Benjamin became friends as the two began to tackle criminal justice reform in 2019. On top of an anti-chokehold bill he sponsored, Benjamin co-sponsored the repeal of the 50-A provision that shielded police officers from having personnel files disclosed. Both bills were enacted. His stance on criminal justice reform, including support for Defund the Police, cast Benjamin as a progressive.
While he confidently maintains that he and Hochul are “politically aligned,” a spokesperson, Hochul said she is not supportive of decreasing funding for police departments.
The political stance represents one example of where Benjamin and Hochul deviate. While the two have respected each other’s views, political strategist Sheinkopf sees his criminal justice policies to be a “political liability,” particularly if the two survive the primary and take on Lee Zeldin, a potential Republican challenger.
“He would be a perfect target for Zeldin, perfect target for anybody center-right considering the crime continues to spike. There’s a general sense that things are out of order.
For now, Benjamin is taking a kind of victory lap, calling his an “American story.” On September 9th, he’ll be sworn in to his new role.