Michael Benjamin, a Republican who wants to run for the U.S. Senate, on Tuesday accused state GOP leaders of trying to muscle him out of the race because he is part Hispanic.
Benjamin, a former Wall Street trader, has been seeking the support of GOP county leaders in hopes of taking on Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer in November.
But state GOP Chairman Alexander "Sandy" Treadwell and Gov. George Pataki have selected their own candidate: Assembly Deputy Minority Leader Howard D. Mills III, a little-known Orange County lawmaker.
Benjamin said he has tried in vain for 14 months to get Treadwell to discuss his candidacy. He suggested Treadwell doesn't want him to run because he doesn't have money and is half Honduran. Benjamin's mother was born in Honduras, his father was born in Iran.
William McGahay, executive director for the state GOP, rejected all of Benjamin's allegations.
"It's too bad that Michael Benjamin has chosen to go negative," McGahay said. "No one has ever told him to get out of the race. New Yorkers know the state Republican Party is open and diverse."
Benjamin's allegations are a peculiar twist in the Senate race, in which the GOP has long been trying to cast Schumer as bigoted in his opposition to some of President Bush's judicial nominees.
Pataki and other Republican leaders insinuated Schumer was anti-Hispanic for opposing Bush's nomination of Miguel Estrada to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit. Many Democrats viewed Estrada as a stealth right wing pick, and Schumer denied ethnicity had anything to do with the matter.
The parallel was not lost on Benjamin, who titled a news release, "Governor Pataki is treating Michael Benjamin exactly like Chuck Schumer treated Miguel Estrada."
Benjamin said he met once with Treadwell at a midtown Manhattan restaurant in January 2003. The discussion centered, he said, on "my heritage." Benjamin said he described himself as a "first generation Hispanic-American." He said Treadwell asked him whether he owned property, and when he said he did not, Treadwell left.
Although he could offer no solid evidence of Treadwell's alleged prejudice, Benjamin said "intermediaries" close to Treadwell told him to drop out of the race. Benjamin said he will run anyway.
"They will gladly take Hispanic votes, but they won't accept a Hispanic as an equal," said Benjamin, who held a news conference Tuesday evening outside a New York City hotel where Pataki attended a $1,000-a-person fund-raiser for the Manhattan GOP featuring California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Benjamin said Dora Irizarry, who ran for state attorney general on the Republican line in 2002 as the first Hispanic statewide candidate of a major party in New York was "handpicked solely to embellish the ticket."
Irizarry, who lost by a landslide to Democratic state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, is now a federal judge. In the same election, Pataki courted the Hispanic vote, which helped him win with an unusually high margin in New York City.
Benjamin said many county leaders want to support him, but fear retaliation from the state Republican Party. He also said the Schoharie County Republican Committee endorsed him in November, but then rescinded because of pressure from the state GOP.
Forest Wollaber Jr., first vice president of the Schoharie County Republican Committee, said the committee considered endorsing Benjamin, but never took a formal vote and ultimately decided to wait. The committee members did not receive calls from the state GOP telling them what to do, he said.
But Wollaber also said he would support allowing Benjamin to run in a primary against Mills, adding: "Give him a shot and let it go to the people."
Mills on Tuesday was endorsed by state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, who said the process of selecting a candidate should focus on "who has the best opportunity to win."
Schumer has more than $20 million on hand for his re-election bid and a high approval rating statewide. But Mills insisted Schumer can be beaten and Bruno pointed out that Pataki was a virtually unknown state senator when he beat Democratic former Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1994.
"I'm confident that we'll have the resources we need to wage a very effective campaign and a campaign that can win," said Mills, who has appealed to the national GOP for financial assistance.