early and often

Is Kathy Hochul Losing Her Party?

Democrats are starting to open up about the governor, who promised to be the un-Cuomo.

Photo: Carlo Allegri/REUTERS
Photo: Carlo Allegri/REUTERS

On Monday evening, as Albany lawmakers tried to help Governor Kathy Hochul undo the mess she made by selecting Brian Benjamin as lieutenant governor, a Democratic lawmaker made a confession to a Republican colleague who opposed changing the law to force Benjamin off the ballot. “I don’t like this feeling. I don’t like this feeling at all. I mean, I really hate agreeing with you,” the lawmaker told him.

“We wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t a favor for the fucking governor,” the lawmaker said in an interview following the vote.

The bill passed both chambers narrowly, with more than 30 Democrats voting against the measure, which allows a candidate to be removed from the ballot if they are arrested or charged with or convicted of a crime. Hochul immediately signed the bill into law and removed Benjamin from the June primary ballot, a month after he resigned from office following his indictment on multiple federal corruption charges. “I respect my colleagues, but I do not understand how they think that this is not going to come back to haunt them,” the lawmaker added.

Anger over the legislation was the latest sign that the honeymoon Hochul enjoyed from her own party after taking over from Andrew Cuomo last summer is over. Over the past several weeks, Hochul has been embroiled in a series of controversies not limited to Benjamin that have dented her standing within the party and raised fears among Democrats that a Republican could make it to the governor’s mansion for the first time since George Pataki. It’s an abrupt change for Hochul, who promised a new era of Democratic comity following Cuomo’s brutal reign.

Hochul selected Benjamin, a former state senator from Harlem, to be lieutenant governor after a flawed vetting process. Her team seemed to overlook red flags related to his fundraising for a failed campaign for New York City comptroller last year, which Manhattan federal prosecutors say ran afoul of the law. (Benjamin pleaded not guilty.) After he was charged, Hochul stressed that she had believed those issues were resolved prior to the pick, though she conceded that there were problems with her selection process. “I made the best decision I could with the information I had at that time, but clearly, we need to have a different process, a more strengthened, streamlined process that can get us to more detail than we had at the time,” she told WNYC.

After Benjamin’s arrest, Hochul and her allies began looking for a way to toss him off the ballot and find a replacement running mate. Under the old rules, a candidate could be removed from the ballot only if they chose to run for another office, left New York, or died. According to multiple sources within the party, the idea was floated of having him run for an Assembly seat in an upstate Republican district in order to trigger his removal. Another idea, according to a senior aide to a Democratic lawmaker, was sending Benjamin into exile. “Oh my God. They were going to try to move Brian out of the state,” said the staffer. “They were looking at it from every angle.”

Hochul subsequently spurned calls from progressives to tap one of their own to balance the ticket. Last month, the Working Families Party reached out to Hochul’s camp to encourage her not to replace Benjamin on the ballot and instead let the lieutenant governor primary play out between their candidate, activist Ana Maria Archila, and city councilwoman Diana Reyna. “Our read, which we shared with the governor’s team before they removed and replaced Brian Benjamin, was that there were already two qualified people running for lieutenant governor, one who we think will actually make an excellent lieutenant governor and would expand the base and mobilize voters who the Democratic Party continues to take for granted,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, WFP’s state director, in a statement.

In the end, Hochul selected Democratic congressman Antonio Delgado, who represents a district outside Albany. The pick inspired some grumbling from downstate lawmakers, since it would mark the first time in more than 15 years that at least one of the state’s top two officials did not have roots in the Big Apple. “I just don’t think that it’s right to change things in the middle of an election,” said Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, a progressive representing Manhattan who opposed changing the law to remove Benjamin from the ballot.

The opposition to the rule change from within the governor’s own party was notable because it came from both the rowdy progressive wing and members of the party’s leadership, including Michael Gianaris, the deputy State Senate majority leader. On Wednesday, Gianiaris pointedly joined two other Democratic senators in endorsing Archila, who is the running mate of Hochul’s challenger and the city’s public advocate, Jumaane Williams.

In an interview, Williams described both Benjamin’s alleged misdeeds and the backroom maneuvering to replace him on Hochul’s ticket as the “kind of shenanigans that turn voters off.” Williams, who has cast the governor as turning a blind eye to the scandals that preceded Cuomo’s ouster, went so far as to described the new regime as “the same or worse than what we had in the previous administration.”

“I think the first taste that people really got was the budget, how difficult it was to work with her on the budget transparently and what things were in the budget … like the Buffalo Bills,” Williams said. “All those things were already percolating and then you had the lieutenant-governor stuff.”

The governor also took heat after legislative maps she signed off on were thrown out by the state’s top court last month. Those district lines, which were drawn by Albany Democrats, were key to the party’s hopes of holding on to its majorities in Albany and possibly on Capitol Hill. Their rejection has left the entire electoral calendar in limbo. Niou said Hochul was unnecessarily risking their party’s chances by taking Delgado out of Congress while the maps are in flux — particularly in light of the looming abortion battle. “We desperately need to have as many of our Democrat seats as possible,” Niou said. “Who knows what the lines will be? Right now, we should be making sure we have as many pieces on the playing field as possible. Every seat in Congress matters.”

Along with the Benjamin debacle and the maps mess, Hochul’s recent issues with her own party include a budget that was passed nine days late last month after a contentious debate that left progressive Democrats furious about late provisions that rolled back the party’s criminal-justice reforms from 2019 limiting cash bail. Of course, she has also drawn fire from Republicans and conservative Democrats, who argue bail reform has contributed to rising crime and want to see it eliminated altogether. And in the final hours of the budget process, Hochul pushed through more than $600 million in funding for a new stadium for the Bills, her hometown team. That stadium cash has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum, and polls show it is opposed by more than 60 percent of New Yorkers. Nevertheless, Hochul has defended it by arguing that pricey ventures tend to be opposed by everyone except “immediate beneficiaries of that neighborhood of that community or patrons or fans.”

Tom Suozzi, the Long Island congressman attacking Hochul from the right in the primary, said her missteps endanger the party in November. “She’s failing,” he said. “She’s just blowing it. She’s missing it on crime. She’s ignoring the affordability crisis we’re facing and the fact we have the highest taxes in the United States of America. She blew it on Brian Benjamin — just a total lack of experience and a lack of judgment. As a result, Democrats have got to wake up to the fact that, if she’s the Democratic nominee, the Republicans can win.”

Hochul’s campaign declined to comment on the critiques from Williams and Suozzi, and it’s easy to see why the governor is in a position to ignore her rivals. The most recent major poll of the race, which came from Siena in late March, showed that, while the number of voters with an unfavorable impression of Hochul was up slightly since January, she leads both men by more than 40 points. She has dominated fundraising, with a record-high haul of more than $20 million in her first few months in office, compared to the roughly $5 million in Suozzi’s war chest and less than $1 million for Williams. One veteran Albany operative suggested big-money backing could keep Hochul afloat despite her failure to make “an emotional connection” with voters. “Her strength is that the Establishment loves her, the Establishment being sort of the moneyed class that runs New York; real estate, lobbyists … health-care sector, the unions,” said the operative.

But Suozzi argued that even if Hochul doesn’t need to fear him and Williams, the Republican nominee could exploit her recent issues to secure a victory in the general election. “She’s opening the way for the Republicans,” he said. “I mean, don’t you think that the Republican candidate’s going to be much more brutal on these issues?”

And Hochul may also have to worry about one more threat from (sort of) within her own party. The March survey showed Hochul’s most dangerous potential primary opponent was actually Cuomo, who has a massive war chest of his own and would be just eight points behind Hochul if he ran. While the uncertainty around the election calendar ramped up speculation Cuomo might mount a comeback, a person close to the ex-governor indicated he wouldn’t challenge Hochul in the Democratic primary. That same source stressed he has not ruled out the general election, though. “If Governor Cuomo was interested in running in the Democratic primary, he would have filed petitions weeks ago,” the person said. “It’s much more likely that he would run against the extremists that have taken over both parties as an independent.”

Is Kathy Hochul Losing Her Party?