campaign desk

The Biggest Fish in Albany?

Liz Benjamin's multimedia rise
November 22, 2010

On one of her first days at Capital Tonight, the nightly political program she began hosting this year on New York cable channel Your News Now, Liz Benjamin let her presence be known—with volume. It was about 8 a.m. and Benjamin was in the Capital Tonight office, a collection of four desks in an open nook off of YNN’s main newsroom. “I was screaming at somebody on the phone when I got an e-mail from my boss who works a couple of doors down, saying, ‘We can hear you through the whole newsroom,’” recalls Benjamin. How did the new employee respond? “Get me a door.”

“Loud” is just one of Benjamin’s settings. The Albany-based blogger, columnist, and lately TV anchor can be flirty—she jokingly asks one source what he’s wearing the day I visit her at Capital Tonight. And she can be tough—she asks another source why he is talking on background because “you haven’t really said jack shit, actually.” She can also be fearless—Spiderman fearless. Working late at the statehouse one night in her early years, Benjamin locked herself out of her closet-sized office with a still-lit cigarette burning in an ashtray on her desk (the triathlete no longer smokes). Worried she would burn the whole building down, she climbed out of the window of another office and walked to her own window along a narrow ledge on the outside of the building’s third floor. “She got into her office and probably smoked the rest of the cigarette,” says then-coworker Erin Duggan.

Long famed as the frizzy-haired muckraker of New York’s statehouse, Benjamin has for fifteen years built a reputation for strong investigative reporting, tough questioning, and breaking news in print and online at The Albany Times Union and the New York Daily News. “She seems to start her day before I wake up and she seems to end it long after I’m asleep,” says WNYC reporter Azi Paybarah. “And the fact that she has a good head on her shoulders makes it almost impossible to keep up with her pace.” Times Union editor Rex Smith is more succinct: “She is as relentless as the sea.”

This year, Benjamin has brought her intensity to television, taking over from Brian Taff as anchor of Capital Tonight. The transition hasn’t been seamless—she still has trouble with the teleprompter, and some say her direct stylings could be further smoothed for TV. In September, for instance, she went all Tony Soprano on gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo, asking if he planned to “take out” Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, though she smiled as the question slipped out.

Nevertheless, the approach has worked for Benjamin, whose profile in Albany is beginning to rival that of the current press corps dean, Fredric U. Dicker of The New York Post. Dicker and Benjamin were the only state broadcast reporters to score sit-down interviews with then-gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo.* “You walk around the capital at 10 a.m. on a weekday you hear people listening to Fred Dicker’s radio show; all day long, they’re reading Liz’s blog,” says Capital Tonight producer Elizabeth Alesse. “It’s the Bible of state politics.”

So it is that the bible challenges the voice of God. And while most in Albany refrain from commenting on any rivalry out of respect for both players, all agree that Benjamin’s star, already risen, has some way to climb yet—a path that leads directly to Dicker. “Liz is definitely on a clear, incredibly forward, and high ranging trajectory,” says Maggie Haberman, New York bureau chief for Politico. “Force of nature” is the description offered by another competitor; another yet calls her a “superhuman.” What does Liz Benjamin herself make of all that talk? “I’m still my own worst critic,” she tells me. “I have a long, long way to go.”

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Liftoff came for thirty-eight-year-old Liz Benjamin with the Times Union’s Capitol Confidential blog. It was late 2005, and Benjamin, state bureau chief at the time and a longtime reporter for the paper, had taken a liking to Ben Smith’s Politicker blog at The New York Observer. Politicker had launched that year, pioneering the format of the modern local political blog—devotedly insider-ish, constantly updated, overseen by a hard-working obsessive, and very well-sourced. Vanity Fair’s Michael Wolff described Smith’s blog in a profile of his current employer, Politico, last year: “It has… a kind of focus and relentlessness and unavoidability that, through sheer immediacy and constancy, forces everybody to acknowledge it.”

“I said, ‘I want to do this,’” Benjamin remembers telling her editors. And while it was “like pulling teeth” at first, Rex Smith gave her the green light to launch Capitol Confidential in early 2006. Benjamin immediately loved the format. “I love reporting and blogging lends itself to that,” she says. “And I’m sort of a frenetic person and the pace of the blog is frenetic, so that works pretty well for me. It’s a quick hit and you get it out.”

Bob Port, who joined the Times Union as senior editor of investigations in 2007, kept an eye on Benjamin’s statistics in the early days. “She amassed such a huge audience in such a short time—there were about 10,000 uniques on the web reading her blog—it dwarfed anything else we were doing,” he says. It was the result of hard work. “She would feed stuff into it day and night. The rest of us were at home, drinking coffee, trying to wake up, and Liz would be on her computer filing news.”

Capitol Confidential quickly became the first-read for political junkies across the state. In 2007, the Daily News poached Benjamin to take over the blog Ben Smith had gone on to start there, The Daily Politics (until this month, she also wrote a Monday column for the paper). Some say she eclipsed the blog’s founder. “I think she set the standard and defined political blogging in New York state,” says Rex Smith, who was sad to see her leave the Times Union. “With all respect to Ben, I think Liz really brought the political blog to fruition. Now, everybody has one.”

Benjamin’s latest blog, The State Of Politics, had a slow start on Capital Tonight’s website when she moved to the show in April. Faithful readers followed while others took time adjusting to Benjamin’s multimedia move. But the blog—featuring video from the program and contributions from Capital Tonight’s reporters and producers—soon picked up steam. In September, for instance, the site’s servers crashed when Benjamin posted video of an altercation between Carl Paladino and Dicker that Capital Tonight reporter Kaitlyn Ross caught on her cell phone.

State of Politics, like many political blogs, specializes in legislative musical chairs and horse-race snapshots of particular political moments: the moment Andrew Cuomo jumps in a poll, the moment Carl Paladino accosts a reporter, the moment X refuses to endorse Y, the moment Y is replaced by Z. It’s aimed at political junkies, and its sharp, informed, and sometimes comic tone has proven addictive.

It helps that Benjamin—the daughter of noted SUNY New Paltz political scientist Gerald Benjamin—is something of a political Wikipedia. “I remember a lot of arcane political stuff,” she told me casually the day I visited at YNN. “Who defeated whom, who’s giving money to whom, who screwed whom, politically speaking.”

“She knows a lot of people and they trust her,” says Ken Lovett, Benjamin’s onetime co-worker as bureau chief for the Daily News. “She knows people from the unions to the political insiders. She’s a political junkie and she’s very good at it.”

Benjamin’s famed Rolodex has proven an asset in her TV role at Capital Tonight—she often books guests directly herself, taking to her BlackBerry to coax the state’s leaders into an appearance at YNN’s Albany headquarters or to a satellite studio to be beamed in for an interrogation. The Capital Tonight office is adorned with political signs and posters for guests past—“Carl Country,” “Lazio/Edwards,” plus a David Paterson bobblehead, which Benjamin says predates her. A huge whiteboard, ruled-up as a calendar, shows who’s coming up today: Carl Paladino, Roger Stone, and Harry Wilson.

Why TV now? I ask, when she finally pauses after a blur of activity—phone calls, two recorded TV interviews, several blog posts—to notice I’m there. Her answer is characteristically blunt. “TV’s still the best way to reach people and newspapers are not,” she says looking every bit the anchor in a fitting brown patterned dress and slick primetime-ready bob—she had her long curly hair colored, straightened, and chopped when she got the new gig. Has her newspaper past helped her adapt? I ask. “There are two kinds of people in political TV news: people who started there, and the people who are the print journalists. The print journalists are a thousand times better. They have the context, they can break the news, and they can do reporting.”

Since Benjamin came on board, Capital Tonight has become more interview-based, and Benjamin’s style is as tough and direct as it was in the statehouse. She copped flak from viewers after testy interviews with GOP gubernatorial primary nominees Myers Mermel and Rick Lazio, whom she asked repeatedly to acknowledge the challenge from Carl Paladino. And the direct approach has worked against her, at times, allowing politicians to wriggle their way out of an answer. When Benjamin asked Cuomo, “Will you seek to take [Silver] out?”, Cuomo responded, “Do you mean for lunch or coffee?”

“She asks questions the way average working, thinking people might ask them, and unfortunately the politicians up here are such liars and evasion artists that she needs to refine her style,” says Bob Port. “I chalk that up to youth but I don’t really care. She’s in your face, she doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions; we need more of that, not less.”

Benjamin knows what some lawmakers—and their staff—think of her. “Everyone says, you’re so tough, we don’t want to come on the show because you’re too difficult,” she says. And the view is not much different among some in the press corps; words like “difficult” and “bitch” sometimes come up when you discuss Benjamin with others. “I’d be curious to see her elementary school report card to see if any teachers thought she played well with others,” says Times Union blogger Jimmy Vielkind, a good friend of Benjamin’s.

Politico’s Maggie Haberman can sympathize with charges that Benjamin’s a spitfire. “I think she’s aggressive, but I think she’s appropriately aggressive,” says Haberman. “It’s New York and she’s a woman. People can pretend that it’s the same for us, but it isn’t. Even more so in Albany. It is such a man’s world; just look around at all the women lawmakers.”

“You don’t have that many options as a woman in Albany or in politics in general,” says Benjamin when I ask her, weeks after we meet, about her tough reputation. “You’re either written off because you’re a woman and it’s a boys’ club, you’re viewed as a sex object, or you’re a hard-arsed bitch.” She’s been called all three; criticisms that have intensified since she began on TV. Mail—much of it from older women—regularly arrives at YNN complaining that Benjamin is too abrasive and not deferential enough to the politicians she interviews. But Vielkind is quick to defend his friend. “In the halls of power, people respect power,” he says. “As many of us remember, sometimes the only thing you can do to make a bully stop picking on you, and take you seriously, is to punch him in the nose.”

The man at the top of Albany’s press corps pyramid is Dicker, the polarizing Post columnist and host of Albany radio station WGDJ’s 10 a.m. hour, which airs live from the capitol. Since taking the Capital Tonight role, Benjamin is seen as a challenger to Dicker’s supremacy in state political coverage. Albany has noticed the rivalry. “Both Fred and Liz are people who strive to be the best,” says Vielkind. “If they’re both striving to be at the top of the same game then tension is inevitable.” Azi Paybarah laughs when asked if there’s room at the top for both Benjamin and Dicker: “Ask Hamlet how many kings can be in the court at the same time.”

Benjamin is diplomatic on the subject of a rivalry. “We have a love-hate relationship,” she says. “I admire him for fully embodying who he is, and he’s damn good at being Fred Dicker. He has an unusual instinct for seeing the forest for the trees, making news happen. It’s not my approach, but it works for him.”

But it’s more than that; sources say the pair can’t stand each other. “People are not wrong,” Benjamin responds. “It goes back a long time. He’s a worthy adversary, we just aren’t terribly fond of each other.” Dicker, who declined to be interviewed, did offer this when I ask via e-mail if there is a bit of a rivalry. “I’m not aware of any rivalry from my end, neither ‘a bit’ nor a lot.”

Kicking Dicker off his perch will be a tough slog, and may not be what Benjamin wants in the long run. She describes her days as “grueling.” Most mornings, she wakes in the dark before heading to a local Starbucks to get the blog rolling and to send off e-mails; the baristas have memorized her order: a red-eye with a shot of sugar-free hazelnut. She’s at YNN by 9 a.m., takes a two hour workout break—swimming, running, cycling—then blogs, conducts interviews, breaks news, and gets the show together. She tapes at 8 p.m. and leaves the studio at 9 p.m.; she can be up until 3 a.m. responding to reader e-mails. “I don’t want to do it forever, but I don’t know what else I’d do.”

A new blog? I ask. In D.C., perhaps? Her sensibilities seem tailor-made for the Beltway. She’s had offers. “There’s a lot of people who think if you’re a political reporter worth your salt you have to go to D.C.,” says Benjamin, who has never left the state for a job. “But my dad had his whole career in the same place. He told me that there’s a benefit to being a biggish fish in a smallish pond.” Other biggish fish have been warned.

*Correction: I originally wrote that Benjamin and Dicker were the only state-based reporters to score sit-downs with Cuomo. This has been amended to reflect the fact that they were the only state-based broadcast reporters to get that scoop. New York Times Albany reporter Nicholas Confessore sat down with Cuomo for ninety minutes in October. The report from that interview—with some audio excerpts—can be found here. Joel.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.