|Member of the New York State Senate|
from the 30th district
|Assumed office |
June 5, 2017
|Preceded by||Bill Perkins|
|Born||December 9, 1976|
New York, New York, U.S.
|Residence||Harlem, New York, U.S.|
|Education||Brown University (BA)|
Harvard University (MBA)
Brian A. Benjamin (born 1976) is an American politician serving as a member of the New York State Senate from the 30th District. He also serves as the Senior Assistant Majority Leader of the Senate. A political progressive, he has focused on criminal law reform efforts such as bringing greater accountability to the NYPD, significantly limiting police no-knock warrants, ending cash bail, ending solitary confinement, not incarcerating parolees for parole violations, restoring the voting rights of parolees, allowing felons who completed their sentences to serve on juries, and passing an anti-chokehold act. He also sponsored and passed the Rainy Day Fund bill, that allowed New York City to set aside funds in a revenue stabilization fund.
The district Benjamin represents covers most of central Harlem and includes parts of the neighborhoods of East Harlem, Hamilton Heights, Morningside Heights, Washington Heights, the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, and Yorkville in Manhattan.
Early life and education
Benjamin was born in Harlem Hospital, the son of Caribbean immigrants. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in public policy from Brown University and a Master of Business Administration from Harvard Business School.
Benjamin became a supporter of Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2007. He was a co-founder of “Harlem4Obama” which helped encourage Harlem support for the Senator and hosted a fundraiser for him in 2008. After Obama's election, the infrastructure of “Harlem4Obama” contributed to Benjamin's organization “Young Professionals United for Change (YP4C),” which instituted a mentoring program at Wadleigh School and organized young people. In 2012, Benjamin was an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention, and raised money for his reelection.
In 2010, Benjamin became a managing partner at Genesis Companies, a minority business enterprise building affordable housing in Harlem. Involved in the purchase and redevelopment of deteriorating buildings from Abyssinian Development Corporation, Benjamin helped steer redevelopment and repair work to as many M/WBE vendors as possible. Of the 100% affordable and environmentally sustainable apartments that resulted from the project, 20% where put aside for the homeless, and 5% for disabled New Yorkers. He was also involved with partnerships with First Corinthians Baptist Church in creating the Dream Center on 119th and the Hope Center on 114th.
In 2016 he became the Chair of Community Board #10 in Central Harlem in Manhattan. In that capacity he opposed a redevelopment plan (that included six new towers, two-story retail spaces, an underground garage, and a community park over the garage), alongside some residents of Lenox Terrace. The developer had said the redevelopment would be a job creator (estimated at 1,100 jobs), stimulate the local economy, add 260 units of affordable housing, and create more green space.
In 2017, when Benjamin was the managing partner of the Genesis Companies real estate firm in Harlem, and at the same time on the verge of becoming the New York State Senate Democratic nominee, his firm was sued by its co-investor in a legal dispute over its alleged scheme to divert revenue from a fire sale by Abyssinian Development to the investors of 31 properties. A Manhattan Supreme Court judge issued a preliminary injunction, freezing the assets until the dispute was settled in arbitration. Genesis Companies denied the allegations, and the case went to arbitration.
New York Senate
New York law provides that special elections for state seats do not have an open primary; instead, party candidates are picked by the local County Committee of party insiders. Three candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, district leaders Rev. Al Taylor and John Ruiz and activist Joyce Johnson, wrote a letter criticizing New York County Chairman Keith L. T. Wright, a close ally of Benjamin, accusing him of “voter suppression” in his bid to install Benjamin in office. Benjamin was at the time the fiancé of a woman who had worked in Wright’s office. Critics alleged that the process was controlled by Benjamin's allies, including the Manhattan Democratic Party chairman and political insiders as the Democratic candidate. Benjamin's candidacy was endorsed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, Governor David Paterson, Mayor Bill de Blasio, NYC Public Advocate Letitia James, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Assemblywoman Inez Dickens, Assemblyman Robert J. Rodriguez, Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, NYC Councilman Mark Levine, former Congressman Charles Rangel, former Assemblyman Keith Wright, former NYC Councilman Robert Jackson, Hazel Dukes, Rev. Calvin Butts, and labor unions 1199SEIU, 32BJ, and his mother's union, Local 372 of DC37. On the other hand, Benjamin's principal opponent, Taylor, was endorsed by the incumbent Senator and a couple of members of the legislature. Benjamin was elected with 176-of-263 votes (63%) at a convention in March.
With the district being overwhelmingly Democratic, Benjamin defeated Republican Dawn Simmons and Reform candidate Ruben Dario Vargas with over 91% of the vote, which had a very low turnout—of only 4%. He was sworn into the seat on June 5, 2017, and pledged to protect progressive values.
In July 2017, one month after his election to the New York State Senate, the CEO of Benjamin's former employer, real estate firm Genesis Companies (which owned dozens of rental buildings in his district in Harlem, with over 700 active violations), made a filing on a "reportable business relationship" form with the New York State lobbying and ethics watchdog panel (the Joint Commission on Public Ethics). Genesis stated that it had retained Benjamin as an advisor for $60,000 a year, to consult on "real estate development matters", starting in June 2017 (a month after he was elected), and ending in June 2018. This was in addition to Benjamin's annual $79,500 salary as a New York State Senator. Benjamin said he consulted for his former firm, but asserted he was not compensated by it. Benjamin would not explain the document. He repeatedly denied receiving any outside income since his election. Albany watchdog New York Public Interest Research Group's executive director, Blair Horner, noted: "Being allowed to moonlight creates potential conflicts."
One of Benjamin's first campaign promises was to seek to close Rikers Island. He introduced a bill to close Rikers in three years. After violence on Rikers on Thanksgiving Day 2017, Benjamin sent a letter to the State Commission of Correction requesting a report on the state of the facility. The report found that the City's inaction and ten year proposal might require the Commission to examine steps to close Rikers faster to ensure that the constitutional rights of inmates and staff were protected. In addition, Benjamin was also a co-sponsor of bills to reform discovery, end cash bail, restore the voting rights of parolees, and end solitary confinement, many of which passed once the Democrats retook the majority.
During his campaign for the State Senate, Benjamin campaigned against the rebranding of Harlem as SOHA by real estate forms. After his election he sponsored the Neighborhood Integrity Act, to prohibit renaming neighborhoods or redefining traditional boundaries without community input. The real estate company dropped the SoHa rebranding effort. During his campaign, Benjamin accepted $2,500 in campaign contributions from a real estate company that owned a South Harlem condominium called “SoHa 118.” When he learned they used the term “SoHa” he returned the donation and asked that they change the name.
In 2018, Benjamin urged constituents to keep warm during cold months, while serving on the advisory board of his former real estate company which accrued hundreds of violations, though the company and city officials maintained the issues existed prior to the company's involvement. He directed tenants to “contact his office about heat-related issues,” and “bragged about holding landlords accountable.”
A new purportedly grassroots non-profit organization, "New York 4 Harlem", that actively solicited donations of $500 to $5,000 was reported in 2018 to allegedly have been a front for Benjamin and three other Harlem elected officials. In addition, a flyer organizing a free bus trip to Albany for a conference organized by the NY State Assn. of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators with the New York 4 Harlem's name on it featured a picture of Benjamin and the three other officials. Nonprofit organizations are not allowed to take part in campaign activity. The contact person for the event was a staffer working in Benjamin’s office, Shana Harmongoff.
Benjamin, formerly served ranking member of the Civil Service and Pensions Committee  is the sponsor of a bill to divest New York's Public Pension fund from private prisons. This bill helped push Comptroller da Napoli, the sole fiduciary of the fund, to divest.
With the Democrats retaking the majority in November 2018, Benjamin was named Chairman of Committee on Revenue and Budget. In this position he focused on divesting public and private banks from private for-profit prisons, sponsoring a bill that would push New York State chartered banks, which include many international banks that use New York State chartered to operate in the US, to stop investments. The bill passed the Senate in the 2019 and 2020 sessions, and was part of a nation-wide movement that pushed many of the largest private banking institutions to drop their investments. The Washington Post reported that Benjamin's legislation was key in getting Bank of America to drop their investments.
The 2019 session also saw the passage of housing reform legislation, including Benjamin's bill to protect keep Rent Stabilized apartments affordable. This and other bills Benjamin co-sponsored where passed as a package entitled the Housing Stability And Tenant Protections Act of 2019. Also in 2019, Benjamin championed a bill that would have allowed felons who had completed their sentences to serve on juries.
In the 2020 session Benjamin sponsored and passed the Rainy Day Fund bill, that allowed New York City to set aside funds in a revenue stabilization fund. Legislation enacted after past fiscal crises had required the city to balance its budget, making such savings impossible, and so the city was required to cut essential services in times of financial stress. As a result of historic support for police reform, Benjamin also was able to legislation he had been championing including his bill the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act. In December 2020 he joined other senators in announcing the introduction of legislation that significantly limited police no-knock warrants to only the most severe circumstances, and banned their use for drug searches.
In January 2021, Benjamin proposed a bill to make it easier for released ex-cons to obtain a state-issued ID when they leave jail. He also is sponsoring a bill to change parole laws, so that parole violations such as testing positive for drugs, failing to report, and failing to notify of a change in address would not lead to incarceration. That same month he tweeted: "I support the movement to defund the police ... "
In January 2021, The New York Daily News reported that Benjamin was earning up to $50,000 a year as a board member of NextPoint, a company led by a Wall Street executive who came under fire for his role in the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis (Andrew Neuberger), and that Benjamin acquired up to $250,000 in NextPoint stock. "This is not a good sign," said housing advocate Cea Weaver. This was in addition to Benjamin earning $120,000 a year as a state senator. That month, a coalition of 34 progressive groups hosted a protest outside Benjamin's home and sent a letter to Majority Leader of the New York State Senate Andrea Stewart-Cousins calling for his removal as chair of the Senate Budget and Revenue committee. They argued that his stock holdings and position on the board of NextPoint were unethical conflicts of interest that should disqualify him from presiding over bills dealing with taxation. The organizations included Housing Works, the Metropolitan Council on Housing, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, New York City Democratic Socialists of America, New York Communities for Change, Street Vendor Project of the Urban Justice Center, New York Taxi Workers Alliance, and the Urban Justice Center – Safety Net Project.
2021 NYC Comptroller campaign
Benjamin is running for election in the 2021 New York City Comptroller race. He is running in the Democratic primary against among others entrepreneur, non-profit founder, and former US Marine Zach Iscol, City Councilmember Brad Lander, NY State Senator Kevin Parker, and NYS Assemblymember David Weprin.
Candidates who raised at least $125,000 from at least 500 donors qualified for matching city funds from the New York City Campaign Finance Board, on an 8-to-1 match basis. As of February 16, 2021, he was one of three candidates who had qualified for matching funds, along with Zach Iscol and Brad Lander.
Benjamin attends First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem.
In 2014, Benjamin appeared in Oprah Winfrey Network's television show Love in the City as a boyfriend of breast-cancer victim and entrepreneur; founder of PinkChoseMe Foundation, Tiffany Jones. Jones accused Benjamin on the show and to the media of stealing her computer and Chanel bag.
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