Early Harlem Obama Backer Seeks Open Senate Seat - Manhattan Express | Manhattan Express

Early Harlem Obama Backer Seeks Open Senate Seat

Brian Benjamin, the Community Board 10 chair, is seeking the State Senate seat vacated when Bill Perkins won February’s City Council special election in Harlem. | BRIANBENJAMIN.ORG

Brian Benjamin, the Community Board 10 chair, is seeking the State Senate seat vacated when Bill Perkins won February’s City Council special election in Harlem. | BRIANBENJAMIN.ORG

BY JACKSON CHEN | Brian Benjamin, a real estate developer and the chair of Manhattan Community Board 10, is now looking to serve his community by going to Albany, with his announcement he is seeking the vacant State Senate District 30 seat. He will be the Democratic Party’s nominee in the May 23 special election.

Benjamin, 40, has been a member of CB10 for the past six years, and became chair a year ago. Outside of the volunteer position, the Harlem resident is the managing director for Genesis Companies, a real estate firm with projects in New York and New Jersey.

Benjamin said in his years on the community board he has confronted the district’s encroaching gentrification and the consequent squeeze on affordable housing, which has given him the experience to be an effective advocate in the Senate.

District 30, which encompasses portions of the Upper West Side and Central and East Harlem, was vacated when incumbent Bill Perkins secured a special election victory for the City Council District 9 vacancy on February 14. After being in Albany for roughly a decade, Perkins felt that returning to the Council, where he served from 1998 until 2005, would afford him more opportunities to deliver benefits for his neighborhood.

The seat Benjamin is vying for roughly matches CB10’s coverage area, though the East Harlem portion of District 30 is outside of his community board’s jurisdiction. The Democratic contender said he expects to focus on four major issues: affordable housing, funding for education, reforming criminal justice, and promoting job diversity.

“In Central Harlem, I am very familiar with those concerns, I’ve been dealing with them for the last six years,” Benjamin said. “I have a track record of solutions and joint ventures that give me an instant credibility… people know I have value and care about issues in our district.”

Beyond his community board work, another major volunteer initiative of Benjamin’s was his work in founding Harlem for Obama, a grassroots group launched in 2007 to build support for the Illinois senator in his match-up against New York Senator Hillary Clinton. Though the former president would go on to win a significant edge among Harlem voters in the 2008 Democratic primary, a year earlier he remained a relatively little known figure in New York, even among African Americans. The experience Benjamin gained there, he explained, taught him a lot about organizing through small fundraisers and registering people to vote. With that grassroots know-how, his current campaign is now focused on door-to-door canvassing, phone banking, and reaching out to block and tenant associations.

Benjamin acknowledged he would be entering a State Senate where Republicans stubbornly hold on to the leadership, with the eight-member Independent Democratic Conference and one conservative Democrat from Brooklyn lending their votes to the 31 GOP senators in the 63-seat chamber. Despite the allure the IDC offers of Democrats sharing in the Republican leadership spoils, Benjamin insists that, if elected, he would remain loyal to his mainline party colleagues.

“It’s not a great situation, that’s a fact,” he said of the Senate’s current leadership structure. “But I think it’s important to focus less on being hostile with each other as Democrats and focus more on how do we bring our coalition back together.”

Benjamin added, “What’s clear is that we need to come back together sooner than later, and I want to be a part of the efforts to bring us back together.”

Benjamin will face off against Republican Dawn Simmons, a charter school advocate who was an alternate Trump delegate at last summer’s GOP National Convention. Simmons also ran against Perkins in the February City Council contest.

According to a Manhattan Republican Party release, Simmons was endorsed on March 11 and said she was “proud to garner the Republican line for this important role.”

“One of the reasons why Democrat Bill Perkins left was because he felt he didn’t have a voice,” Simmons said in the statement, alluding to the Democrats’ minority position in the Senate. “I will be that voice that our residents need.”

Simmons did not respond to Manhattan Express’ request for an interview.

The May special election will decide who holds Perkins’ former seat through the end of 2018.

One Response to Early Harlem Obama Backer Seeks Open Senate Seat

  1. Frank Chris Jackson April 7, 2017 at 3:03 pm

    If you have to sacrifice your integrity to win an election then you will never amount to much as a politician- unfortunately it appears that is the path Mr. Benjamin has taken. In the Sept. 19 2014 Black Enterprise article, “Brian Benjamin: Doing Business in Black Communities for the Benefit of Black People,” he stated “I am in leadership on my local Community Board in Central Harlem. I see a future for myself in elected public office as well.” When he ran for Community Board 10 chair in June 2016 he was asked directly by the Community Board 10 Nominating Committee Chair, Stanley Gleaton, if he would serve his full two year term, to which he replied that he would. Yet eight months later, according to the February 13, 2017 New York Post article “Low voter turnout expected for special election to fill Harlem city council seat” it stated that “Construction and development executive Brian Benjamin, chairman of Community Board 10 and finance chair of the Manhattan Democratic Party, has expressed interest in running” for State Senate. At the Democratic County Committee State Senate nomination convention on March 10, 2017, his opponents accused him and his supporter Keith Wright of using “voter suppression” tactics to ensure his victory as the nominated candidate (re: New York Observer, March 10, 2017, “Harlem Candidates Accuse Democratic Machine of Rigging Contest for State Senate Seat”), which would in theory ensure his victory in the May 23rd 2017 NYS Senate election in Central Harlem’s heavily Democratic voting district. Yet Harlem voters know little about Brian Benjamin other than recent news articles (re: The Real Deal, March 13, 2017, “Abyssinian’s Fire Sale Sets Off Legal Spat”); (re: New York Post, March 27, 2017, “State Senator Candidate is Exec at Company that Owns Problem Properties”); (re: DNAInfo, April 21, 2016, “Years After Fleeing Violence, Man Returns to Harlem to Make A Difference”). Without a public opportunity to face his would-be opponents, Joyce Johnson, Al Taylor, and John Ruiz, how can Harlem voters know where Mr. Benjamin stands on a variety of community concerns? How can voters know who they are voting for? With no record of public service to scrutinize, Harlem voters are left with little information about Mr. Benjamin with which to make an informed decision in the voting booth, as well as few candidates to choose from. By the way, Community Board chairs should not utilize their position “to be seen,” or to get onto other boards, or to give favors to politicians, or to address issues only he/she is interested in, or to promote his/her business, or to build up his/her political base, or finally– to be used as a vehicle to run for political office. Like New York State Senate. Regardless of how wealthy one appears to be, how youthful one appears to be, how many ivy league degrees one has received, or how many pictures he/she has taken with the former president or former first lady.

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