Hochul Seeks to Change Ballot Law After Lieutenant Governor Arrested

Governor Kathy Hochul is having a challenging month. Due to a quirk in New York’s election laws, it appears that former Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin may still be listed as her running mate for the 2022 gubernatorial election despite being arrested for federal bribery and conspiracy charges two weeks ago. CBS news reported that Hochul reached out to the state legislature earlier this week in hopes of changing the law which currently prevents Benjamin from being removed from the ballot.

“I would like the Legislature to pass legislation that corrects what is really a strange part of our law that does not allow the removal of someone who is under indictment or in other circumstances someone who has a terminal illness maybe. I mean, the law is the law until it’s changed,” Hochul said. New York State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins confirmed the governor called her Monday night to discuss amending the law.

Benjamin resigned as lieutenant governor on April 12, hours after surrendering himself to the authorities who arrested and indicted the Harlem native for several charges, including bribery and honest services wire fraud. Benjamin was subsequently released on a $250,000 bond after entering a not guilty plea in federal court. US Attorney Damian Williams has alleged that “from at least in or about 2019, up to and including at least in or about 2021, Benjamin participated in a scheme to obtain campaign contributions from a Harlem-based real estate developer in exchange for Benjamin’s use of his official authority and influence as a New York State senator to obtain a $50,000 state-funded grant for a non-profit organization controlled by the developer.”  In the court documents, it is further suggested that Benjamin and others acting on his behalf, or at his direction, engaged in a series of lies and deceptions to cover up his scheme, including by falsifying campaign donor forms and misleading city regulators.

Governor Hochul immediately accepted Benjamin’s resignation and has since sought to distance herself from her former, and possibly current, running mate. “While the legal process plays out, it is clear to both of us that he cannot continue to serve as lieutenant governor. New Yorkers deserve absolute confidence in their government, and I will continue working every day to deliver for them,” said the Governor.

Speaking with reporters on Tuesday, Hochul indicated Benjamin is unlikely to leave the state.”Right now the best option is to get the Legislature and ask them for their support for legislation to correct this deficiency in current law,” she said.

Hochul has a tight deadline to formally sever ties with Benjamin as early voting begins on June 18. New York law currently dictates that a candidate for office cannot be removed from the ballot after accepting a nomination, barring a few narrow circumstances such as leaving the state or dying. Oddly enough, standing trial for conspiracy is not presently considered grounds to remove a candidate from the ticket. If the law is not changed, Hochul will remain unable to name a new running mate, and will run in the general election alongside the winner of the June 28 democratic primary election for Lt. Governor. Activist Ana Maria Archila, and former New York City Councilwoman Diana Reyna, are competing for the nomination.

State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, a Democrat from Westchester County, has indicated she will introduce a bill that would allow for the removal of candidates facing criminal charges or a terminal illness. The measure could gain a floor vote in her chamber.”I’m hoping we will,” Paulin said on Tuesday. “I don’t know for sure, but I’m hoping we will. We’re certainly talking about it.”

Democratic lawmakers who control the state Senate and Assembly have been hesitant to support making changes to the election law ahead of the primary vote.

“I really, really, really don’t like to change rules in the middle of a process,” Stewart-Cousins said. “It’s certainly in the middle of an election. She did speak to me last night and we will continue the conversation. .”

State Republicans share those reservations, and have signaled their intent to block any legislation that would alter the current law. New York State GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy said in a statement, “If Kathy Hochul’s co-conspirators in the legislature help her avoid accountability for picking a crook as Lieutenant Governor they will be directly responsible for aiding and abetting the cesspool of Albany corruption, and we will make sure every voter knows it.”