Former Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin will remove himself from the ballot as Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation passed by the Democratic-led Assembly and Senate on Monday evening to change state election law and relax the rules for a candidate to vacate a party ticket.
Senators on Monday voted 33-29 to pass a bill to allow political candidates nominated by any party to sign a certificate and remove themselves from the ballot after they are arrested and charged with one or more misdemeanors or felonies under state or federal law. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan; and Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale.
Assemblymembers passed the legislation in kind 82-57 after hours of spirited debate. Several Democrats joined Republicans in voting against the measure that will allow disgraced Benjamin, a former state senator from Harlem, to remove himself from the ticket.
Benjamin resigned as lieutenant governor last month amid federal bribery and fraud charges. He suspended his campaign for the state's second-in-command, but remains on the ballot.
"I will sign the necessary paperwork to remove myself from the ballot," Benjamin said in a prepared statement Monday afternoon, just as lawmakers reconvened in the state Capitol and commenced hours of debate to pass legislation to allow the disgraced ex-lieutenant governor to remove himself from the ballot.
Benjamin was vehement the charges against him related to his support of a nonprofit are "unfounded" and "unjustified," saying he will be vindicated of the criminal accusation.
Withdrawing from the race amid the charges "is the right thing to do," Benjamin said.
"I fully expect to be exonerated of these false charges, and look forward to serving my community again when that time happens, however, until I have the opportunity to clear my name, I will not be able to serve, therefore making it unfair to the voters of this great state for me to remain on the ballot," he said.
The legislation, a governor's program bill, was introduced late Friday night.
A vacancy may be submitted up to four days after a person declines their candidacy under the proposed law by a state vacancies committee.
Assemblyman Mike Tannousis, R-Great Kills, proposed a hostile amendment to the bill to require a simple legislative majority approval to fill a lieutenant governor vacancy, mirroring the congressional process to select a vice president under the 25th Amendment, and current state policy for comptroller and attorney general.
The governor is permitted to select a lieutenant governor without an approval process.
The amendment failed with 98 Democrats voting against it. Assemblywomen Marianne Buttenschon, D-Utica, and Aileen Gunther, D-Forestburgh, joined Republicans to vote in support of the measure to change the bill.
Buttenschon also joined Republicans to vote in support of an amendment posed by Assemblyman Michael Lawler, R-Pearl River, to change the bill to go into effect Jan. 1, 2023, after this year's election.
Lawler asserted his amendment would ensure the intent of the bill becomes law, but does not change election law for politicians in the middle of the process.
"The bill in chief seeks to remedy a situation that has arisen due to the alleged criminal acts both of our lieutenant governor and our horrific judgment of our governor," Lawler said on the Assembly floor. "Clearly, she chose poorly, and she should have to live with the consequences of that decision to change the rules in the middle of the game...It is not to say that the intent of the bill is wrong. I think we all agree we would like a government free of corruption. We would like a government free of elected officials being arrested. We would like a government free of elected officials being convicted of crimes.
Senate Democrats similarly voted down an amendment to the law sponsored by Sen. Joe Griffo, R-Rome, also to create a similar legislative process to fill a lieutenant governor vacancy.
Gov. Kathy Hochul is expected to swiftly sign the bill into law.
Republicans argued the bill was unfair, as past political candidates facing criminal charges were not given a path to remove themselves from the ballot, and benefits one candidate running on the Democratic Party line this year: Hochul.
Former U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, a Republican, was re-elected to Congress in 2018 following his arrest by the FBI on insider trading and false statement charges. He resigned in 2019, the day before pleading guilty to the crimes.
"No one asked us to make the law change at that time, so we didn't," Krueger said.
Democrats also argued several candidates on the ballot secured their candidacy without petitioning.