Influential donors rally around NY’s lieutenant governor ahead of next year’s high-stakes campaign

Influential donors rally around NY’s lieutenant governor ahead of next year’s high-stakes campaign

New York Governor Kathy Hochul appears with her choice for Lieutenant Governor, Democratic New York State Senator Brian Benjamin an event in the Harlem section of Manhattan, New York, August 26, 2021.

Mike Segar | Reuters

New York Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin has been quietly amassing a group of influential big-money donors as he prepares for a potential primary battle for his seat.

Benjamin, who was a state senator before being chosen by Gov. Kathy Hochul in August to be the state’s lieutenant governor, began as recently as last week meeting with wealthy donors to start building his campaign war chest, according to people familiar with the matter. Some of the people declined to be named in order to speak freely about the ongoing private fundraising efforts.

Benjamin is up for reelection in 2022 and will likely face a primary fight for his seat, including a possible campaign by state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi.

Benjamin took part in a kickoff campaign fundraising event on Nov. 9 at the home of longtime New York businessman Dennis Mehiel, some of the people said. Multiple other fundraising events are set to take place in the coming weeks, according to people familiar with the effort.

Supporters say they are backing Benjamin because he is a key partner to Gov. Hochul and for his potential to run for governor himself in the future, among other reasons.

Hochul herself is in the middle of a Democratic primary for her seat, with New York Attorney General Letitia James recently announcing a run for governor.

Benjamin is a moderate Democrat with ties to the New York business community through his prior work at Morgan Stanley. He was on former President Barack Obama’s national finance committee and later helped Vice President Kamala Harris during her 2020 run for president. As a state senator, Benjamin advocated for criminal justice reform and affordable housing.

Hochul said in her press conference introducing Benjamin that he will be “someone who will be out there championing our policies and our administration’s agenda in every corner of the state with a real focus on New York City, because New York City needs our help.”

Some of the biggest Democratic donors and power players in the state were at the early November event, including Mike Kempner, the CEO of public relations giant MikeWorldWide; Jon Henes, the CEO of corporate advisory firm C Street Advisory Group; Melissa Prober, who is Benjamin’s campaign finance chair and currently general counsel at Henes’ firm; and Brian Mathis, a Wall Street veteran and founder of Pine Street Alternative Asset Management. A list of attendees was provided to CNBC.

Other business leaders on the attendee list include real estate executive Will Blodgett and Bruce Teitelbaum. Laurie Tisch, a co-owner of the New York Giants, is also on the roster as an attendee.

The event ended up raising over $200,000, more than doubling their original goal of bringing in $100,000 for Benjamin’s campaign, the people said. Donors can give up to just over $22,000 to statewide candidates running for office in New York during the primary season.

“It is no surprise that donors are enthusiastically contributing to the Lt. Governor and that we exceeded expectations for the kickoff event,” Prober told CNBC in a statement. “I can tell you this: we are just getting started and will have very strong numbers for the first filing in January.”

Benjamin has also brought on at least two fundraising consultants to advise him on building a strong operation. Shari Yost Gold, a longtime fundraiser for Harris, has signed on to volunteer for Benjamin, she confirmed to CNBC.

“Brian is a big part of the party’s future – he’s smart, pragmatic and donors see that – they are lining up to help him,” Yost Gold told CNBC about her work for Benjamin.

Anthony Mercurio, who helped run Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s fundraising effort when he ran for president in 2020, is also advising Benjamin, according to people briefed on the matter.

Many of the people who are helping raise money for Benjamin also assisted Harris’ 2020 campaign and have experience bundling for other Democratic leaders across the country. Kempner, who chaired the recent event at Mehiel’s home, has been one of the party financiers activating his network for Benjamin while acting as one of his key outside advisors. Henes was Harris’ national finance chair during her previous run for the White House.

Party leaders at the recent Benjamin fundraising event include, former New York Gov. David Paterson, former Rep. Charlie Rangel, Democratic New York City Council speaker Corey Johnson and Dr. Hazel Dukes, the president of the NAACP New York State Conference, the list shows.

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