The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kathy Hochul Must Show Voters She’s Incorruptible

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST 26: New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and State Senator Brian Benjamin wave at the crowd during a press conference announcing him as her Lt. Governor on August 26, 2021 in New York City. Senator Benjamin, who placed fourth in the Democratic primary for city comptroller earlier this year, will replace Hochul who was sworn in as Governor this week after the resignation of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Senator Benjamin has been a lead sponsor and advocate for criminal and police reforms that includes the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act and the Less is More Act, which restricts the use of incarceration for non-criminal technical parole violations. He has also been a proponent of affordable housing. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST 26: New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and State Senator Brian Benjamin wave at the crowd during a press conference announcing him as her Lt. Governor on August 26, 2021 in New York City. Senator Benjamin, who placed fourth in the Democratic primary for city comptroller earlier this year, will replace Hochul who was sworn in as Governor this week after the resignation of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Senator Benjamin has been a lead sponsor and advocate for criminal and police reforms that includes the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act and the Less is More Act, which restricts the use of incarceration for non-criminal technical parole violations. He has also been a proponent of affordable housing. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images) (Photographer: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images North America)
Placeholder while article actions load

The most important decision a political candidate makes when running on a ticket is selecting a competent and ethical deputy who would be ready to step in on Day One, should the need arise.

The people of New York could’ve reasonably expected Kathy Hochul to understand this obligation, since she served for six and half years as lieutenant governor before assuming the top job when Andrew Cuomo resigned following allegations of sexual harassment. Apparently not.

It emerged on Tuesday that Hochul’s running mate, former state senator Brian Benjamin, has been indicted on campaign-finance violations. Most such violations are handled through fines and other penalties — if at all. Truly egregious violations can result in arrest and jail time. The case against Benjamin, including federal bribery and fraud charges, fits the latter category.

The charges arise from Benjamin’s losing 2021 bid for New York City comptroller. Prosecutors allege that Benjamin, while in office, steered a $50,000 state grant to a Harlem real-estate developer’s charity in exchange for campaign contributions fraudulently sent under other people’s names. On Tuesday, after pleading not guilty to the charges and being released on bond, Benjamin resigned as lieutenant governor.

Unavoidably, the governor will still be tarnished by this scandal. Benjamin and his campaign were first served with subpoenas well before Hochul selected him as lieutenant governor. Although both Hochul and Benjamin have said that the governor was unaware of the investigation at the time, she continued to express “full confidence” in her deputy as recently as last week, even as evidence of a serious investigation emerged.

Hochul has had some successes in her eight months as governor. She has pushed sensible criminal-justice reforms in response to surging street crime and largely managed to contain the Covid-19 crisis, while lifting mask mandates and attempting to get the state back to normal.

But after New York’s last three governors — and a slew of other high-level officials — have all left office under the cloud of scandal, the state’s voters deserve a leader with integrity. Hochul can still be that person. Her prompt acceptance of Benjamin’s resignation is a start. Although he is presumed innocent, the state didn’t need the drama of a high-profile trial. If existing ballot rules prevent a change in running mates before the primary election in June (as seems likely), Hochul should support the most qualified and experienced candidate available, even if it requires a write-in campaign.

What’s needed now is a transparent assessment of what went wrong — including a review of Hochul’s other key appointments — and a renewed commitment to integrity in government. While the ticket-balancing that led to Benjamin’s selection is a longstanding political tradition, Hochul can no longer afford to place geography and background ahead of ethics and competence. Supporting someone above reproach is the best way to win back the confidence of New York’s voters.

The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

Loading...