As Democratic leaders scramble to find a loophole in state law to remove now-former Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin from the June primary ballot, one lawmaker is looking to change the law as a final solution.
Assemblymember Amy Paulin, a Westchester County Democrat, is circulating a memo seeking support for a bill that would change state election law to allow anyone who is charged with a crime to voluntarily give up their spot in an election. That would seem to apply to Benjamin, who resigned after he was indicted on five bribery-related felonies earlier this week but can’t easily remove himself from the June 28th primary since he already accepted the ballot position.
But Paulin said her bill, as it’s drafted now, would require a candidate to seek removal by May 1st each year, meaning it would have to be introduced, passed and signed into law before then to give Benjamin – and Democrats – an out this year.
That would be an uphill climb: Lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return to the Capitol until April 25th, and legislative leaders haven’t embraced Paulin’s proposal to this point.
“I’ve always believed that lawmaking is about watching your circumstance around you and accommodating the law to real-life situations,” Paulin said in an interview Thursday. “We learned something this time (with Benjamin’s arrest) and we should adapt the law.”
Benjamin’s eight-month tenure as lieutenant governor came to an end Tuesday after federal prosecutors accused of trading a $50,000 state grant for tens of thousands of dollars in political campaign donations.
Paulin’s proposal has support from Common Cause/NY, a good-government organization who said the law needs to change going forward and held a news conference Thursday supporting the bill.
Susan Lerner, the group’s executive director, said she “absolutely” wants to see it take effect as soon as possible to give Benjamin an opportunity to get off the ballot.
“It’s a pending problem for the voters and I think the voters deserve a quick resolution,” Lerner said.
A Harlem Democrat, Benjamin was up for election this year and has signaled he’s suspending his campaign. But at this point, he can only be removed from the primary ballot if he dies, moves to another state or is nominated for another position.
Paulin said her bill is meant to provide a “humane” alternative for people who realize they are unable to run late in the electoral process. Along with those indicted with a crime, Paulin’s proposal would also allow those who resign their office or are facing a life-threatening illness to give up their ballot position.
Republicans, however, quickly pushed back against Paulin’s plan, accusing Democrats of trying to change the rules midstream just to alleviate a major headache for Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Hochul, a Democrat, appointed Benjamin to his post in August. And she has the power to appoint a replacement for Benjamin for the remainder of the year, but she can’t get that person on the June ballot unless Benjamin is somehow removed from it.
“I think it’s inappropriate at this time,” Assemblyman Michael Lawler, a Rockland County Republican, said of Paulin’s push. “The governor made her decision and she’s got to deal with the consequences of it. The rumors about Brian Benjamin were out there long before she chose him as her lieutenant governor [in August] and she obviously chose poorly.”
New York GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy called the proposal a “gross abuse of power that is trying to rig the system and cheat their lawful opponents.”
In New York, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separately in party primaries before they’re joined as a ticket for the November elections. Benjamin is facing a primary challenge from two people: Ana Maria Archila, an activist running with gubernatorial candidate Jumaane Williams, and Diana Reyna, a former New York City Council member running with Rep. Tom Suozzi of Long Island.
Archila, in particular, has picked up support from progressive officeholders in the days since Benjamin’s arrest, including New York City Comptroller Brad Lander and a handful of state lawmakers who rallied with her in Manhattan on Thursday.
So far, the Legislature’s Democratic leadership hasn’t embraced Paulin’s proposal, though it’s still in the early stages. It’s also not clear whether Hochul herself supports it; her office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Paulin seemed to cast doubt on whether it could get done in time for this year’s primaries, though she’s holding out hope.
“I've never passed a bill that quickly,” Paulin said. “I can say that it's always my goal to pass a bill that quickly, but I've never been able to. So I don't know.”