ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — When New York Gov. Kathy Hochul took office last year after her predecessor resigned in a sexual harassment scandal, one of her first big decisions was appointing a lieutenant governor who could help restore trust in government.
Her choice — and attempt at a reset — imploded last month when her pick, Brian Benjamin, resigned after his arrest on corruption charges.
Now the Democrat is hoping to try again, vetting candidates for a new partner as legislative allies changed state law Monday in a way that gets Benjamin off the ballot in the primary election and allows Hochul to campaign with a new, yet-to-be named running mate.
Hochul’s choice for a job that normally fades into the background is now a high-stakes decision that could make it tougher to shake off two primary challengers and weigh her down in the general election in November.
“If she gets the wrong person, it gives the Republicans an issue,” Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said. “The question of this choice is being used against her to question her capacity to govern and to make decisions.”
Hochul has said Benjamin’s April 12 arrest surprised her. She dismissed questions Monday about how carefully she vetted Benjamin, a former state senator, pointing to the tight timeframe she had to find a second-in-command after then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned in August and she took his place.
“We had to get someone. It was not a situation that was desirable. Can we do it all over again differently? Yes, and we will do it very differently,” she said.
Her decision of a new partner is expected in the coming days. But in order to take her new pick on the campaign trail, she first needed lawmakers to allow her to remove Benjamin from the June primary ticket.
Existing elections law had said a candidate can only get off the ballot in case of death, moving out of state or running for another office.
The state Senate and Assembly approved legislation Monday to allow candidates to decline their spot on the ballot if they’ve since been charged with or convicted of crimes.
Hochul told reporters earlier Monday that the bill is about ending dysfunction in Albany. She denied that it was solely focused on her gubernatorial bid.
“When you think about it, every time I talk to a voter, they can’t believe that that was even the law,” she said. “So why not fix it now since this came to light? They know that a governor deserves to have a running mate of her choosing.”
With the legislation passed, Benjamin can decline his party’s nomination and remove himself from the June primary ballot, something he said Monday he intends to do.
“I am innocent of these unsubstantiated charges. However, I would be unable to serve under these circumstances,” Benjamin said in a statement posted to Twitter.
The Democratic Party and its committee on vacancies will be able to fill Benjamin’s spot with a candidate of party leaders’ choosing, according to a summary of the bill.
Republicans, as well as some Democrats, blasted the bill as an unfair changing of election rules at the last minute.
“Instead of working to lower crime and taxes, Kathy Hochul is more focused on salvaging her political future by desperately working to change state law to cover up that she put a known-corrupt LG on her ticket,” Suozzi said.
Hochul’s office didn’t immediately provide answers to questions Monday about when she will announce her new running mate.
Hochul, who is white and from Buffalo in western New York, has been pressured to select a person of color who has ties to New York City.
That was a consideration she made when choosing Benjamin, a former state lawmaker who hails from Harlem and was the second Black man to hold the job.
Hochul could also potentially tap one of two lieutenant governor candidates already on the ballot: immigration advocate Ana Maria Archila, and former New York City council member Diana Reyna. Both are running in hopes of serving alongside progressive Jumaane Williams and centrist Tom Suozzi, respectively.
Luis Miranda, a New York political consultant and board chair of the progressive political group Latino Victory, is among those who’ve publicly called on Hochul to appoint New York’s first Hispanic lieutenant governor, a symbolic choice in a state that prizes diversity.
Latinos make up roughly one-fifth of the population but have not yet been elected to statewide office in New York or citywide office in New York City.
“It will make a difference and it will be noticeable and great for the Latino community, and quite frankly, good politics,” Miranda said.