New York lawmakers passed a special measure Monday that will allow Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) to replace her scandal-tainted running mate ahead of an upcoming primary vote.
Despite Benjamin’s resignation, it proved nearly impossible to remove him from the Democratic primary ballot. Under state election law, a party’s designated candidate could be dropped only in rare circumstances — for instance, if the person died or left the state.
Hochul appealed to legislators for help and on Monday, they delivered. The Democratic-controlled legislature approved a law that permits a candidate to decline a spot on the ballot if the person has been arrested or charged with a crime. Hochul swiftly signed the bill.
“I’m very pleased that my partners in government agree that this is an important step to take,” Hochul told reporters earlier in the day.
The legislation is a boon for Hochul, allowing her to contest the primary and November’s election with a new candidate for lieutenant governor. The move also sparked immediate criticism that Hochul was using the legislature for her own political ends.
The first woman to serve as governor of New York, Hochul took office in August after former governor Andrew M. Cuomo resigned following a sexual harassment scandal.
She remains the clear front-runner to win the Democratic nomination for governor, despite facing primary challengers from both the liberal and moderate flanks of the party.
Yet, her election bid has faced turbulence in recent weeks. In her first budget as governor passed last month, Hochul pushed for a $600 million subsidy to build a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills, her hometown team whose owner had threatened to move the franchise elsewhere.
The deal is unpopular with New York voters: a recent poll by Siena College Research Institute found that 63 percent of those surveyed disapproved of the stadium measure, including 60 percent of Democrats.
Then came Benjamin’s arrest and resignation. The charges against him predate his tenure as lieutenant governor and relate to his election campaigns when he was a state senator representing Harlem. Prosecutors allege that Benjamin directed state funds to a real estate developer’s charity in exchange for fraudulent campaign donations. Benjamin denies the charges.
Hochul’s critics and opponents say that her choice of Benjamin as lieutenant governor was a sign of inexperience and poor vetting.
On Monday, Benjamin said that he intends to withdraw from the ballot and expects to prove his innocence. Until then, it is “unfair to the voters of our great state for me to remain on the ballot,” he said.
Republicans called Monday’s legislation a manipulation of the electoral process by Hochul and her fellow Democrats. Rob Ortt, the minority leader in the New York state Senate, wrote that lawmakers had “conspired with the most powerful person in the state to change the rules for their political benefit in the middle of the election.”
Some Democrats also criticized the move. Ron Kim, a member of the state Assembly from Queens, said the measure was an example of what “every person in New York hates about Albany politics … rules for thee but not for me.”
The controversy over the primary ballot is not the only issue roiling the upcoming election in New York. The state’s highest court recently struck down a redistricting map approved by lawmakers, calling it unconstitutional.
A judge later ordered New York to postpone its primaries for congressional seats until August. The gubernatorial primary is still scheduled to be held in June.