The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What if New York’s political leadership wasn’t an embarrassing mess?

New York state Sen. Brian Benjamin (D), right, gets a photo taken with state Sen. John Liu (D) at a 2021 rally in New York. (Brittainy Newman/AP)
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For the 12th time in the past 20 years, New York this week got a new lieutenant governor. Acting lieutenant governor, yes — but: still.

Perhaps you were under the impression that the position came with a four-year term in office. Well, you are correct! But since the beginning of 2003, only two lieutenant governors have actually served a full, January-to-January-four-years-later term. On average, the state’s second-highest ranking executives have lasted only about 500 days on average, almost always either because they were caught up in nefarious activity or because the governor was, meaning that they were tapped for the top job.

In the case of Brian Benjamin, New York’s lieutenant governor until this week, it was the former. He was indicted on federal criminal charges including bribery and fraud. He replaced Kathy Hochul, who became governor when Andrew M. Cuomo resigned following multiple allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct.

Cuomo replaced David Paterson, a former lieutenant governor who was elevated to the top position following the resignation of Eliot Spitzer due to a sex scandal. When Paterson became governor, his lieutenant governor seat was filled by a truly spectacular cast of acting and appointed replacements: Joe Bruno, who was later indicted on corruption charges; Dean Skelos, who was later convicted on some; Malcolm Smith, who suffered the same fate; Pedro Espada Jr., who did as well; and, finally, Richard Ravitch, who didn’t. Paterson was succeeded by Cuomo after deciding not to run in the face of corruption allegations of his own.

If I can editorialize as a New Yorker: This is embarrassing.

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Compare the pattern in New York with its neighbor Connecticut over the past 40 years.

Over that time, Connecticut has seen one governor resign — John Rowland, who was facing impeachment over corruption charges of his own. His lieutenant governor then assumed the top position in 2004 and was later reelected. And that’s it. That’s the extent of the turnover. New York has seen more than that in the past nine months.

All of the solid lines on the graph below indicate turnover. But this is a bit misleading; some of the changes in New York were so fast that the lines blur together and aren’t differentiable.

It’s useful to remember that this is only the top two positions in the executive branch. New York’s legislative branch is worse. A lot of those acting lieutenant governors under Paterson held that position by virtue of being the president of the state Senate, so a lot of those corruption indictments and convictions were a function of their hard work on the legislative side of Albany.

When Cuomo resigned last year, I held out some hope that perhaps the state would finally clean up its act. But a lot of this is systemic, with archaic voting rules helping to solidify party power (an effort to reform those rules that was on the ballot last year failed thanks largely to low turnout) and a pattern of political back-scratching that dates back to at least the early 19th century. So two weeks after I wrote that bleakly hopeful article last August, Hochul tapped Benjamin, who had already committed the alleged acts for which he’s been indicted. By January of this year, those allegations had come to light.

Oh well. There’s always next time.

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