Brian Benjamin is poised to become Harlem’s newest elected official and a sign of the new generation coming to uptown politics.
The 40-year-old is running as a Democratic candidate for the State Senate’s 30th District’s special election, a position vacated by longtime politician Bill Perkins, who was recently elected to the City Council.
In the political realm, Benjamin founded the grassroots organization Harlem for Obama 2007, helping to raise a reported $250,000. After that, late political consultant Bill Lynch mentored him into entering public office, linking him with key political figures in Harlem politics. Benjamin joined Community Board 10 in 2012 and became chair in 2016.
“What I ultimately want to do is be a part of getting some real legislations that matter to people’s lives passed,” he said. “I’m trying to hit the ground running before I even get there. Criminal justice and economic development are two big things for me. I think I can change those things in the State Senate.”
Born in Harlem, Benjamin grew up in Brooklyn’s Starrett City. He graduated from Brown University and Harvard Business School. Since 2010 he’s been a partner with the affordable housing development firm Genesis Companies in Harlem. The company owns more than 1,000 units and has placed 1,500 people in affordable housing with 53 buildings in total.
“It’s been my life’s journey to kind of be in the middle of where public policy and private development intersects,” he said. “I think for us to accomplish anything as a society, it’s going to take both the private and public sectors.”
Benjamin’s race became official in March when the Manhattan Democratic Party nominated him to run because primaries are not held in special elections. He has garnered endorsements from political heavyweights, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Charlie Rangel, Public Advocate Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.
Labor unions are also supporting him, including 1199, 32BJ, Teamsters and, just this week, the New York State United Teachers.
The moves with Upper Manhattan Democratic politicians have been called somewhat of a “Harlem Shuffle” by many, starting with City Council Member Inez Dickens’ election to the State Assembly, a position once held by Keith Wright, who lost his own race to represent Harlem in the U.S. Congress to Adriano Espaillat last November.
Benjamin is considered a shoe-in because of the 30th District’s enormous Democrat votership. His opponents are Republican Dawn Simmons and Ruben Vargas running on the Reform Party line.
Recently, Benjamin made headlines for announcing that if he’s elected he will introduce legislation to close Rikers Island in three years, a faster plan than Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to close it in 10 years. Benjamin says that a plan to reduce the Rikers population from 9,700 to 3,000 can be done in three years by renovating or building new structures. He also wants to see it done in case de Blasio or another Democrat is not elected.
“This is not a jab at the mayor at all,” he said. “In our politics at some point we need to focus on the issues more than the individual personalities. On the Rikers issue I don’t think the Lippman report is as aggressive as it needs to be. I want to focus on an aggressive timeline to build urgency. We are not going to take our time on this. Ten years could turn into 15.”
As far as the future, Benjamin said he’s focused now on winning the State Senate race and feels the office will enable him to make real change. He plans to run again in the November election.
“State senator is a very powerful person,” he said. “I believe as one of the 63 people in the State Senate who could make a real difference and I think I could get a lot of stuff done for this district.”