State Senator Michelle Hinchey played the host as she introduced New York State’s Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin to local businesses on a March 4 tour that included several stops in Woodstock and Kingston.
Asked about the reason for the tour, Hinchey put the economy first. “I know that he is focused on economic development as well as pandemic recovery. It’s important for me to advocate and promote businesses and the economy. So we reached out to him to see if he wanted to learn about the businesses that are doing the work on the ground for economic recovery,” she said.
So how’d it go?
“I think he loved it. He hails from Harlem. Woodstock, the City of Kingston were quite different. We don’t get the support those in New York City do. It was interesting for him to see how impactful an organization like the Woodstock Film Festival can be to a community…or how an art exhibition on Social Justice can resonate.”
She also pointed to the Center for Creative Education in Kingston illustrating the gaps in providing child care, and to businesses like Bread Alone for its “forward thinking in its climate practices.”
Brian Benjamin, 45, a State Senator (NY-30) representing Harlem, parts of the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights in Manhattan, became the 78th Lieutenant Governor of New York in September, 2021. He was appointed by the new Governor, Kathy Hochul, who herself was lieutenant governor before she ascended to the top spot after the resignation of Andrew Cuomo.
A glamorous job it is not, though it does pay $210,000 per year. Statutorily, the state constitution tells us, the lieutenant governor fills in for the governor when she or he is disabled or absent. Or becomes Governor in the event of the governor’s death, resignation or removal from office via impeachment.
That’s close to all there is to it…you can include serving on the State Defense Council and on the board of trustees of the College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
So it’s not glamorous…until it is.
Two of the last two elected governors of the state have resigned, Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo. They both departed the Albany mansion by their own hands, making many headlines, and each leaving little known lieutenants to become Governor. And thus, political note has been known to spring from such a position.
Benjamin, a personable, almost jovial presence, sang praises throughout the visit.
“First of all, I love the pizza I just had, Catskill Mountain Pizza, that was phenomenal. And look, I can’t lie to you, I grew up hearing about Woodstock. So for me to be able to come and see it for myself, it’s a little nostalgic, too…I am, as far as I’ve been told, the first lieutenant governor to come to Woodstock. I understand, given my background in small business, in economic development, workforce development, affordable housing, I wanted to see what was going on and get a sense of some of the grants we have provided to some of your arts and cultural entities and get a sense of how the state can be helpful going forward in our budget…”
That was sweet music to the ears of Woodstock Supervisor Bill McKenna, who was along for the Woodstock portion of the visit, and to County executive Pat Ryan, county legislature Majority Leader Jonathan Heppner, Woodstock Land Conservancy Board Chair Kevin Smith and its executive director Andy Mossey, Bread Alone’s Nels Leader, who were along for portions of the day.
At Bread Alone, Benjamin infused the room with energy and ended up behind the counter waiting on customers to the amusement of the three women working there. You realized then that the lieutenant governor is no novice, that he is comfortable and practiced at his political craft.
And he will have to be. Through a quirk of New York law (of which there appear to be many) the lieutenant governor’s nomination is left to the voters by itself, even though the nominees for two top spots run as a team in the general election. Thus, Benjamin will have to win a primary election on June 28 to become the Democratic nominee. There will be challengers on that ballot.
City and State, a political journalism organization (that’s their term for it) projects perhaps four vying for the nomination: Benjamin; former New York Council Member Diana Reyna, who is the running mate of gubernatorial challenger Rep. Tom Suozzi of Long Island; former CNBC reporter Michelle Caruso-Cabrera; and David Englert, mayor of the village of Sodus, somewhere between Rochester and Syracuse. Assemblyman Ron Kim is a possibility.
Asked about the primary, Benjamin segued into the job expectations. “I get out and get around the state regardless. My now governor, who used to be my lieutenant governor, she really set the record on it. So there’s a natural expectation that I get around…When I was a state senator in East Harlem and the upper west side, I liked to get around and see my district. Now the state’s my district… I chair the regional economic development councils. We’re going to make investments not only for downtown revitalization initiatives but also smaller urban, suburban, rural grants. We are looking to really bring the state’s resources to every part of the state, and that includes places like Woodstock. So I wanted to come and see what’s out here and what we should look to invest in, to help stimulate the economy and deal with some of the issues you’re facing.”
At the Woodstock Film Festival office, Hinchey said that the region was lucky to have the festival. “It’s a big economic driver for the community, both merging and giving people who live here more access to culture, and a whole host of films,” she said. “It’s bringing tourism business to all of our restaurants, all of our businesses, while helping local people who are artists, being able to meet people who have transcended in their industries…”
Film Fest executive director Meira Blaustein explained that “We also have a very robust educational component, every year we do a free youth film lab for area teenagers…We also have our annual filmmakers residency, where we bring filmmakers from their country…”
Her comments pointed to a blunt question and this exchange:
Benjamin: If you think about growth, what is it you need?
Meira: We need money…
Benjamin: In this case, more is more, yes, I understand…
Meira: By far the challenge to overcome is raising much more substantial funds.
After photos in the partially renovated garage in the back of the Film Fest headquarters on Rock City Road, Benjamin and Hinchey, with staff, headed over to the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum where they viewed the main exhibit, Art & Social Justice, along with other galleries. Executive Director Nicole Goldberg spoke of how grants and support from the governor make “so much of an imprint, it pays for staff salaries, it pays for supplies to hang the work, it pays for art supplies for the children’s programming…this year, in particular, it’s such a difficult funding climate, the grants you gave us are just incredible, they keep the doors open, heat the building.”
McKenna summed up. “In each place we went today it’s all about art…we talked about music, we went to Bread Alone — if you look at those loaves of bread, that’s art…film festival and now here, it’s just a huge part of Woodstock.”
And then Goldberg mentioned the oft heard “Woodstock is the Colony of the Arts…” Benjamin answered, laughing, “I’ve heard that ten times today. When you go to school are you taught that?”
And when Goldberg called Woodstock the also often uttered “most famous small town in America…” Benjamin answered “And I’m OK with that, because I’m from the most famous village in America, which is Harlem. I’m glad we’re not both towns, because that could be a problem.”
A few more photos on the Village Green and Benjamin, Hinchey and staffers were off to Radio Woodstock 100.1 WDST-FM for an interview, and then to Kingston where they had dinner and visited the Center for Creative Education.
“Smaller upstate communities are really on the cutting edge of paving the way for where our state should be going,” said Hinchey. “Taking innovative steps forward. The crux of economic development is based in arts and tourism and seeing how the state can support these businesses.”