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Assemblymember Paulin discusses last-minute effort to replace Benjamin on the ballot

New York state Capitol
Jim Levulis
New York state Capitol

New York state government and the coming elections have been given a jolt following the arrest and resignation of Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin, who has pleaded not guilty to several bribery-related charges as part of a federal investigation.

Now, Democratic state Assemblymember Amy Paulin of the 88th district wants to change state election law to take Benjamin off the ballot. Time is short because the primary is about two months away. Republicans allege Democrats are simply trying to shield Hochul from an embarrassment as she seeks a full term. WAMC spoke with Paulin Friday.

NYS Assemblymember Amy Paulin
Courtesy of the Office of NYS Assemblymember Amy Paulin
Courtesy of the Office of NYS Assemblymember Amy Paulin
NYS Assemblymember Amy Paulin

Before we talk about your measure specifically, what was your reaction to news of Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin's arrest and resignation?

It was very unfortunate. Unfortunate for state government generally, because he's serving right now. And very unfortunate for the voters who will not have an opportunity to vote for someone who will represent them.

Were you surprised?

You know, I wasn't close enough to know one way or the other. I didn't know him that well, I served in the Assembly, he was in the Senate. You know, after all this time in government, nothing surprises me. I just found it very disappointing.

So let's talk about your measure now. Typically, in a situation like this, it would not be possible to replace somebody on the ballot this close to an election. So what are you trying to change?

So the current law doesn't allow… let me flip that. It only allows someone who has moved out of state, becomes a judicial candidate, or is dead, to be removed from the ballot. So that leaves a lot of places in between. And clearly, what happened here, we know, is one of those places. The other potential problems: what if someone gets diagnosed with a terminal illness? What if they, for personal reasons, needed to resign from the very office that they're seeking because of other reasons? We need to be more flexible, we need to update the law, we need to take into consideration these same factors that we that we are giving other people in other arenas. At a time where we’re more compassionate for workers on family leave, you know, we have to do the same for people who are representing us. It's only fair to both the individuals running and to the voters who have to vote for them.

Why now, though? Presumably, this loophole, if you want to call it that, in state election law has been in place for many other elections. Why the urgency to do this given the current situation?

Well, as a lawmaker, you look for the example to change the law. I wasn't thinking about this, nor were other people, and then all of a sudden we're faced with the circumstance. So there's two reasons to change the law. One, because the law needs changing. Obvious, this example. And two, hopefully we give the voters in this instance an opportunity to vote for someone who is potentially going to represent them.

If Brian Benjamin wins, what could potentially happen is, you know, then he resigns again, and then the person who’s lieutenant governor is then appointed, so the voters had no participation in the choosing of the lieutenant governor. And that would be a shame. And by being in the race, if he doesn't win, he's going to alter the results. And that's also a shame. The voters deserve to have a real election. He deserves to be able to pay attention to his court case. And I'm hoping that this bill could be done in time. I don't know. It's a very short time turnaround. But I'm hoping because then the voters have an opportunity to participate in the very government that they live in.

Well, we heard New York Governor Kathy Hochul, who is supportive of this idea. Have you checked with Speaker Carl Heastie? Does he want to get this through in a hurry?

Honestly, this was an idea that came about less than a day ago. And I haven't had, you know, with holidays and all coming up, I haven't checked to see whether it's a bill that the speaker embraces.

Would this apply to all offices?

It would, just as the other provisions that allow someone to decline a nomination would.

Now let me ask you about criticism from the other side of the aisle. Republicans say Governor Hochul clearly did not make a good choice for lieutenant governor and she's made her bed and now she should have to lie in it. What would you say to that?

I'd say they're being very, very political. Clearly it’s to their advantage to have someone on the ballot that isn't a viable candidate. But it's not to the voters. The gubernatorial candidates that are saying that, you know, if they want to point to poor judgment, if they want to point to Brian Benjamin, they can still do that. But why punish the voters at the same time?

Can you take me through the timeline a little bit? You mentioned, there's some urgency here, because the primary’s in June, which means the ballots have to be printed shortly. So what kind of timeline is actually feasible to change what voters will see?

In preparing the legislation, I checked with the state board of elections. And the deadline seems to be May 4th for this year.

And lawmakers come back to Albany April 25th.

Yes, we do. So there is a chance we could do this. But we would need everybody on board. So I just don't know. You know, next week, I'm obviously going to be taking the temperature of a lot of people.

Benjamin in New York State in the primary, the Lieutenant Governor candidate is running separately from the gubernatorial candidate. So if you're successful, what would people see in the vote for lieutenant governor on the primary ballot?

There would be an ability to have a replacement. Remember, Brian Benjamin was the Democratic Party's pick to run. So right now, the Democratic Party as a whole doesn't have a pick on the ballot. There would be an opportunity for the party to get together with the committee on vacancies and to propose another candidate in time for the voters to have that choice.

So there's a few steps here, then. Your bill would have to pass and then the Democratic Party would have to re-gather for a mini-convention to nominate a new endorsed candidate for lieutenant governor?

Yes. It would have to be very quick. I think in the bill, we say it has to be within three days.

Is that all possible?

I think that's very possible. That part of it is very possible.

How would this affect the general election ballot?

Well, it doesn't. It affects it only if this person impacts the primary race, which we assume it would, right. So if that person won, they would be the lieutenant governor, whoever that is, if one of the other two candidates won, they would be the lieutenant governor candidate in general. And of course, whoever wins the Democratic primary is the candidate going forward.

What would you say to people listening to this who have lost faith in state government? I mean, this is less than a year after the governor had to resign in a series of scandals, we've seen legislative leaders of both parties arrested on corruption charges in the past. What's your message to people who've given up faith?

Again, there's nobody that's more disappointed than legislative leaders themselves. You know, we work with so many people and we see their hard work. We see their intelligence. We see how much this job means to them and how much they're working for the people of the state of New York. And so when we see someone who violates that, it’s horrible. It's just horrible because it does influence people in a bigger way, frankly, than it should because most government officials that I have come to work with and know are extraordinary people. We have some bad apples, every profession does. When it's here it's even more disappointing and even more problematic because we're supposed to be above that. We have a special mission to protect people in leading government in an ethical way. But it's not everyone and it's not most and it's a very few. And so we just have to know that there is a lot of integrity in government. I believe that and I've been in it for 22 years.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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