Caribbean American pol sworn in as NY lieutenant governor

New York state Sen. Brian Benjamin, right, and Gov. Kathy Hochul smile together during an event in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in New York. Hochul has selected Benjamin as her choice for lieutenant governor.
Associated Press/Mary Altaffer/File

With his family and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul by his side, United States District Judge Analisa Torres of the Southern District of New York on Thursday swore in Caribbean American New York State Sen. Brian Benjamin as New York’s next lieutenant governor.

Late last month, newly-installed Gov. Hochul announced the selection of Benjamin for lieutenant governor.

Benjamin, 44, the son of a Guyanese mother and Jamaican father, previously served as the New York State Senator for District 30 — which encompasses Harlem, East Harlem and the Upper West Side in Manhattan.

“I’ve found a person who knows what it’s like to struggle, to work hard, to make something of his life, and to now return his service to the community,” Hochul told the swearing-in ceremony. “That is, my friends, the American dream, how someone who started out with little rose to where he is today, but now turns back and doesn’t think about himself.

“He thinks about how he can serve not just his Senatorial district, but now he’ll be helping me serve 20 million New Yorkers,” the governor added. “It’s an extraordinary responsibility. I wouldn’t have asked you if I didn’t think you’re up for the task. And I know you are.”

Benjamin thanked Hochul, 62, “for putting your trust in me.

“New York State, I will do everything I can to make sure that those who are living at the margins, those who are struggling, those who are overlooked will have a seat at the table,” he said. “And we will make sure that there’s fairness, accountability and good practical decision-making that governs our activities.

“And thank you so much, Gov. Hochul, for this opportunity to serve,” Benjamin added. “I will not let you down. New York State, I will not let you down, either.

“You know, whether it’s fighting for safer streets, advancing nation leading gun reform, combating the opioid epidemic and enhancing addiction treatment services or advocating for affordable and supportive housing, Gov. Hochul wants to make sure that we all have a seat at the table,” he continued. “And I think that you asking me to join the administration has made it abundantly clear that you want upstate and downstate, every ethnicity, every culture to feel included.

“And, for too long, people have not felt included that they have a seat at the table, that their issues would be brought to the forefront,” Benjamin said. “And I’m proud to say that you are creating an administration that will do so.”

Benjamin, who remains heavily involved in his community in Harlem, and Hochul, 62, previously worked together on several key issues, including fighting the opioid epidemic and boosting addiction recovery programs, supporting Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises (MWBE) and making it easier for New Yorkers to vote.

The new lieutenant governor said Hochul has asked him “to be helpful as it relates to tackling the COVID epidemic.

“She has asked me to work to make sure that communities across the state, particularly those where there’s a concern about whether or not they should take the vaccine, where there’s less knowledge about the vaccine, she wants to make sure that I am part of the team that goes around to make sure that people know that the vaccine is the answer and that, if we are going to get through this COVID epidemic, we have to do it together,” Benjamin said. “And the vaccine is the key.”

He said the governor has also asked him to “play a very important role as it relates to making sure that renters, small landlords, and workers who have really had significant struggles because of COVID.

“People can’t pay their rent, we have small landlords who are literally cashing life insurance policies, taking out second mortgages on their homes because they don’t have the support,” Benjamin said. “And as we know, there was US$2.7 billion of ERAP funding that has come to New York State.

“She has committed and wants me to assist with making sure that that money gets out the door to real people,” he added. “So far, only US$300 million has actually gotten in the hands of real people. We want to make sure that that number is ramped up much quicker, and I will work diligently with our governor to do so.”

Gov. Hochul said: “We have a lot on our plate. We also want to make sure that we continue to restore trust in government, let people know that we believe that integrity is everything. They were going to continue to lead in a way that people will hopefully look back on and say that it was a shining time in our state’s history.

“But I can’t do it alone,” she said. “I need someone at my side. Someone who also I rely upon for their wisdom and their guidance and their local knowledge of issues of what’s going on in the public housing in the city and how we can do much better for the people who call those sometimes hellacious environments their home, and what we’re going to do to protect our environment and fight climate change, because we’ve seen what it looks like.

“It is no longer an abstract theory into the future,” Hochul said. “It is what happened in the streets of Queens (borough in New York City), where I held the hands of people who are absolutely devastated and crying for help. We have seen we have to do so much more there.”

Benjamin had unsuccessfully run for New York City Comptroller in June’s Democratic primary in a field that included Corey Johnson, the speaker of the City Council, and Councilman Brad Lander, who emerged triumphant. Benjamin placed fourth, behind Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, a former CNBC television anchor.

The new lieutenant governor was reportedly short-listed for the position, along with the Haitian-American chair of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, New York State Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, the daughter of Haitian immigrants; New York State Senator Jamaal Bailey, the chairman of the Democratic Party in the Bronx; and Rubén Díaz, Jr., the outgoing Bronx borough president.

Benjamin says on his website that he was born in Harlem “to a Caribbean mother who came to this country seeking new opportunities.”

“Though they didn’t have a college education, his parents were fortunate enough to find well-paying union jobs, which allowed them to provide Brian and his siblings with a middle-class upbringing,” the website says.

“After graduating from high school in New York City, Brian sought the quality education his parents had dreamed of providing him with, earning his undergraduate degree in Public Policy from Brown University and his MBA from Harvard Business School,” it adds.

It says that Benjamin spent three years working in investment banking at Morgan Stanley.

He then returned to Harlem to build affordable housing, creating over a thousand units of environmentally-sustainable, affordable housing at an MWBE, while helping young people develop work skills and secure good construction jobs through community youth programs, according to the website.

As the second highest-ranking position in New York State, Benjamin, as lieutenant governor, will deputize in the governor’s absence, death, removal or resignation.

Political pundits speculate that Hochul selected Benjamin in order to galvanize minority votes, particularly in overwhelmingly Democratic New York City.

It remains unclear who might emerge as a Democratic primary challenger to Hochul in 2022.

New York Attorney General, Letitia James is considered a strong potential candidate, though she is yet to indicate whether she will contest the race.

New York City Public Advocate, Jumaane Williams, the son of Grenadian immigrants, is also viewed as Hochul’s potential opponent.

Williams – who ran a strong but unsuccessful race for lieutenant governor against Hochul in 2018, losing by 6.6 percentage points – said he was “actively exploring” a run for New York Governor next year.

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