Brian Benjamin was officially sworn in as the state’s Lieutenant Governor Thursday, Sept. 9, promoting the uptown state Senator to the second-in-line to Governor Kathy Hochul.
“We have a lot on our plate,” said Hochul at the ceremony in her Manhattan office. “But I can’t do it alone, I need someone at my side… It’s an extraordinary responsibility, I wouldn’t have asked you if I didn’t think you were up for the task, and I know you are.”
The Harlem Democrat thanked Hochul for the opportunity, and vowed to work for the state’s most marginalized.
“Thank you, governor, 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,” said Benjamin.
Hochul held the position and ascended to the governorship after disgraced ex-governor Andrew Cuomo resigned last month following a scathing investigation by the State Attorney General Letitia James’ office detailing sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo by 11 women.
Two days after becoming governor, Hochul announced Benjamin as her pick for lieutenant governor in at a rally in Harlem on Aug. 26.
Hochul tasked her number two with three briefs, including chairing a task force on the ailing New York City Housing Authority, supporting the state’s battle against COVID-19 and vaccine hesitancy, and getting more relief funds out to renters, landlords, and workers.
“We will make sure that there’s fairness, accountability, and good practical decision making that governs our activities,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin remained vague on specific initiatives he will take in the office, which is largely ceremonial with few actual powers, saying there will be “more to come,” after he settles into his new position.
The former state lawmaker wants to speed up the distribution of $2.7 billion in rent relief through the so-called Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). So far, only $300 million reached New Yorkers, according to Benjamin.
“We want to make sure that that number is ramped up much quicker and I will work diligently with our governor to do so,” he said.
He said his time representing northern Manhattan neighborhoods has given him a good insight into the issues plaguing NYCHA, including broken elevators and sluggish response times to repair requests.
“As the senator representing Harlem, East Harlem, and the Upper West Side, I have the most NYCHA of any senators in the state and so I know very clearly the issues around the $40 billion-plus of capital needs that are there — and growing quickly,” so Benjamin.
Another challenge for Benjamin will be to convince New Yorkers to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The state’s vaccination rates for at least one dose is 66.1% as of Sept. 8, meaning 33.9% have yet to get inoculated.
For a completed vaccine series, the state’s rate is 59.5%, although state leaders like Hochul frequently tout the percentage of New Yorkers aged 18 and older with at least one vaccine, which stands at 80.9%.
“We do have a community of people who are just choosing to get the vaccine, even though they know it’s out there,” said Benjamin. “We can’t just have more commercials, we can’t just keep screaming at people. We’ve gotta sit down with people, we’ve gotta talk to them, we’ve gotta understand their perspective and we have to deal with some of the distrust.”
He said that might include town halls and other communications and conversations noting the effectiveness of the shots.
Breakthrough cases have been reported in only 0.5% of fully-vaccinated people, and only 0.04% of people who got their shots have been hospitalized with the disease, Hochul said at a COVID briefing Wednesday.
Benjamin’s vacated Senate seat will be up for grabs in a special election which will align with the November general election, but the Democrat declined to endorse anyone yet.
“I feel very strongly that the people, when they look at the options on the table — and fortunately there are a number of people who have presented themselves — they will make the best decision,” he said.
The newly-minted lieutenant governor also said he and Hochul will endorse each other when they run for the Democratic nomination to keep their seats next year.