This story was published in partnership with New York Focus, an independent, investigative news site covering New York state and city politics. Sign up for their newsletter here.
For the second time in four years, a faction of Manhattan Democrats is attempting to oust the longtime leader of the county party.
During a party meeting last week, a group of 18 of the Manhattan Democrats’ 70 district leaders — volunteer hyperlocal officials elected to, among other duties, run county political parties — delivered a letter to leadership proposing a ban on working in lobbying while holding the party’s top position. Good government groups see the proposal as an important, commonsense measure to promote ethical politics.
But the policy has a target: The current county leader, former state Assemblymember Keith Wright, directs strategy for the government relations arm of a powerful lobbying firm, where he has worked since 2017. The change would likely force him from his seat — and open up a battle between two Manhattan mini-machines.
Those gunning for the current county leader include Washington Heights heavyweight US Representative Adriano Espaillat, who has jostled with Wright for influence since before he defeated Wright’s congressional bid in the 2016 primary. Espaillat’s office did not respond to an interview request.
“Either there’s a change in execution or a change in management,” Ortega told New York Focus. “Nobody wants a weak Democratic party going into the 2024 presidential election.”
To reform-minded progressives and good government groups, the spat is an opportunity to build out anti-corruption policy —– and they hope to have an impact beyond the local feud.
“This makes sense — and not just in one county,” said Rachael Fauss, policy director for Reinvent Albany. “Lobbying is a particular area where you’re trying to influence government,” she said, and serving as a top party official while peddling influence is “an obvious conflict.”
The group of district leaders also proposed reforms that would require translation services at meetings and create a gender-divided dual position structure for party leadership positions, akin to the structure currently in place for district leaders. If passed, the latter reform would force Wright, who has served as county leader for nearly a decade and a half, to share his power with a female or non-binary co-chair.
At the same September 12 meeting during which Ortega introduced the proposals — which the county party’s rules committee will consider at a future meeting — Wright won re-election. He ran unopposed, perhaps partly because the Manhattan Democrats only gave district leaders seven days’ notice (the minimum required under party rules) that the election was taking place.
Of the 58 district leaders present at the meeting, 51 voted for Wright and seven abstained, according to a party spokesperson. The spokesperson declined an interview request on behalf of Wright, and the county leader did not respond to New York Focus’s emailed questions.
Veteran party members may find the reform proposals familiar: Four years ago, a group of district leaders attempted to create a party rule that would disallow the county leader from lobbying.
Wright used procedural hurdles to block it from a vote, according to the New York Post, which described the saga as an attempted “coup.” The dissidents hoped to bring it up again by electing a fellow reformist to the county party’s number two position, which had the power to independently raise the issue. But that failed, too, as Wright was able to wrangle enough votes for his preferred number two, Domenico Minerva, whose inaction on the lobbying proposal put the issue to bed.
Last month, Wright tried to return the favor. As New York Focus reported, Wright stepped in — unsuccessfully — amid a revolt against Minerva’s apparent attempt to get his wife on the shortlist for a powerful judicial nomination. The next election for Minerva’s position is October 5, according to the party spokesperson.
Wright directs government relations strategy for Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, or DHC. “It’s one of the most influential firms in the state,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of the good government group Common Cause New York, and it has clients in the midst of contentious and high-profile policy fights.
This year, for example, DHC has represented New York City charter schools and a charter advocacy group amid a fierce political fight over the city’s charter school cap; the vape company Juul amid Governor Kathy Hochul’s attempts to ban flavored tobacco; and real estate companies amid a landmark, ongoing debate over tenant protections and housing development policy.
DHC has also been a main lobbying group for Election Systems & Software, which makes a type of voting machine experts have decried as insufficiently secure. Last year, state legislators introduced a bill to ban the machines. But it died in committee after the New York state chapter of the NAACP circulated a letter mischaracterizing tests of the machine’s security and issuing doubtful claims that the bill would limit disability and language voting access — points that, New York Focus found, the organization lifted nearly verbatim from DHC lobbying material.
DHC also represents clients engaged in litigation, and Wright has major influence over judgeships. In New York, general election nominations for lower court benches come directly from county parties rather than primary elections. And in deep blue Manhattan, the Democratic nominee usually breezes through the general election.
DHC has lobbied for an association representing home health care employers, who recently won a court battle that allows them to pay their workers for only 13 hours of a 24-hour shift. The firm’s legal arm has also led the defense of Rudolph Giuliani, whom it sued this week over unpaid legal fees.
A ban on lobbying for county leaders “is an important rule that any political party should adopt,” said Lerner. “People in that position shouldn’t be able to use their office for personal gain or to improperly influence public policy.”
Wright’s backers don’t see a conflict of interest.
“If Keith did something that I thought was … not in the best interests of the county, I would say something,” said Paula Diamond Román, a district leader from the Upper West Side. She characterized the rule change proposals as disingenuous. “There are internecine battles going on, which have nothing to do with how the county is run,” she said.
Diamond Román may be right that the proposals are more about politics than ethics. Ortega, who introduced them, himself works as a lobbyist while serving as district leader.