Benjamin, who has served as Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY New Paltz since 1996, said his four decades of studying and writing about state and local government made him qualified for the transition team, which will focus on local government reform. He also said his understanding of an elected official’s perspective made him an appealing candidate for the committee.
However, Benjamin is humble about his appointment.
“There are probably a lot of smarter people in New York State than I am who would do better at it, but people don’t know them,” Benjamin said. “People know who I am.”
Benjamin is well-known throughout New York because of his involvement in the state’s government as well as heavily studying local government. Having served in advisory positions to previous governors and attorney generals, Benjamin said he has “interacted with all of the offices in the state government that have to do with local government in one way or another over the years.”
He also worked as an advisor to the governor-elect’s father, former governor Mario Cuomo, decades ago. Benjamin feels that this could have had a role in Andrew Cuomo selecting him for his transition team. Though he has talked briefly with the incoming governor in the past, Benjamin is more familiar with the senior Cuomo.
“[Andrew Cuomo and I] have talked, although not deeply and not for long periods of time. I’m acquainted with his dad, I worked for his dad. So, he may [have heard] from his dad that I’m a person worth paying attention to. I don’t know,” Benjamin said. “The mysterious ways in which the world works in the governor-elect’s office aren’t entirely known to me.”
Benjamin was elected as a member of the Ulster County Legislature over the span of a decade in the ‘80s and ‘90s, serving as majority leader and then chairman of the legislature.
Not only did he serve as the Principal Research Advisor to the New York City Charter Revision Commission in the late ‘80s, creating “the greatest revision of a New York City charter in modern history,” he said, but served as chairman of the Ulster County Charter Commission, which adopted “the first charter in Ulster County history.”
Having served his elected positions as a Republican, Benjamin said Governor-elect Cuomo likely chose him along with many other members of the transition committees to “create the reality of collaboration.”
“He’s been mindful of the fact that people from all different backgrounds—racial, ethnic, social, different parts of the state, different professions, different partisan stripes—need to be involved, because New York is in crisis and we need to work collaboratively,” Benjamin said of the incoming governor.
For Benjamin, this sense of teamwork and cooperation is important in facing many of New York’s current issues.
“I’ve always thought it was important to work in the interest of New York. Sometimes, my notion about the interests of New York differ from other people’s, so there are conflicts,” Benjamin said. “But in so far as you can, you want to collaborate in the interest of the state, its people, its institutions and its economy and so forth.”
Initiatives of the local government reform committee Benjamin will serve on have not been established yet, Benjamin said.
Currently, Benjamin said he has been vetting job applicants and commenting on their applications, and he “expects and suspects” the committee will be discussing policies.
Benjamin said he foresees the possibility of reducing governments or collaborating their services, which was one of Cuomo’s campaign platforms, will be discussed by the committee. He also expects a debate about the possibility of capping property taxes.
“The fundamental issue is that New York government costs a lot more than the money New York has and that New York has to find . . . We like to think that we can reduce costs in some measure while maintaining service levels,” said Benjamin.
Benjamin said he believes the state can take actions to improve conditions for municipalities by removing legal constraints or imposition of costs.
“The point is that localities can’t do things on their own. They need to have a collaboration with the state and support from the state,” he said. “The opportunity we have now is that in this crisis, the state and localities can work together to address some of these issues.
Benjamin said the committee is equipped with “a whole catalogue of remedies and improvements that can occur based on studies that were recently completed.”
Adding this new venture to his long resume is a new chapter among many for Benjamin, who has worked on various councils, boards, panels, committees and voting bodies for a number of services, studies and governmental bodies over the past few decades. Serving New York state under Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo is just his latest undertaking.
“I’m grateful to be included,” Benjamin said.