Albany Agenda

Will Manhattan Democratic Party boss Keith Wright start a political dynasty or trigger a rebellion?

Wright’s son is running to represent the 70th Assembly District, and the primary election could become a proxy battle for Wright’s rivals in the county party.

Manhattan Democratic Party chair Keith Wright attends the unveiling of the “Gate of the Exonerated” in Harlem on Dec. 19, 2022.

Manhattan Democratic Party chair Keith Wright attends the unveiling of the “Gate of the Exonerated” in Harlem on Dec. 19, 2022. Johnny Nunez/WireImage

It seems every two years or so an attempt to oust Manhattan Democratic Party boss Keith Wright emerges, only to fall short. It happened in 2017 after fellow Democrats raised concerns that Wright’s day job working with lobbyists conflicted with his leadership role. It happened again in 2019 when Wright was up for re-election as chair.  

And it happened several months ago when a faction of aggrieved Democrats — mainly aligned with Wright’s antagonist, Rep. Adriano Espaillat — tried and failed to oust him over the same claims made five years ago.

But now a new opportunity has surfaced that might lay the groundwork for another mutinous attempt: the race for Harlem’s 70th Assembly District. The current holder of the seat, Assembly Member Inez Dickens, has announced plans to retire.

Wright’s opponents are seizing the moment, representing the latest salvo in a protracted feud between the old school, baritoned Harlemite and party officials wary of what they view as Wright’s penchant for silencing dissenters and barely offering a helping hand. The fight goes back years, with issues of race, political birthrights and the pursuit of power underlying the volley of recriminations. 

The latest installment in the long-running saga is personal for Wright, since his son Jordan Wright is among four candidates vying for the Assembly seat. Stopping the younger Wright from winning could weaken Keith Wright in his own backyard, foiling a familiar trope in New York City: the genesis of a political dynasty. 

Dynasties and factions

Political families are as old as the five boroughs, benefitting from a symbiosis that retains power, reinforces it and often invites resentment. Wright, a 12-term Assembly member who represented the same district his son is running in, is a political scion himself: his father was Bruce Wright, a state supreme court judge whom he credits as a pioneer of the progressive bail reform movement seen today. It was no wonder Keith Wright referred to his son’s interest in public service as entering “the family business” in a phone interview with City & State.

The momentum to win is there for the Wrights. Both have come off a good year thanks to their backing of Council Member Yusef Salaam in his successful bid for Harlem’s 9th Council District. The younger Wright served as Salaam’s campaign manager, with the elder throwing his support to Salaam over Dickens. Jordan, who served as a community board member before becoming Salaam’s chief of staff, now hopes to parlay his civic experience to win his own seat. 

But to politicos like Corey Ortega, a local district leader once loyal to Keith Wright, the race is critical for Wright to retain his power in Harlem. Party leaders need loyalists around them for political survival. Who better than his own son?

“It keeps his base in line because right now the only base he does have is Central Harlem,” Ortega said. 

The Manhattan Democratic Party is known for its warring fiefdoms – some supportive of Wright, others neutral, and still others fiercely opposed to his leadership – and he needs all the help he can get. If the Wrights lose, their rivals will smell blood in the water.

He has to put his chips in Central Harlem otherwise…the perception is he has lost his backyard. And in this case, perception becomes reality,” Ortega said of Wright. 

Ortega leads the Hamilton Heights Democrats for Change, part of a coalition aligned with Espaillat’s political apparatus in northern Manhattan. Though Ortega’s group has not officially endorsed anyone for the June 25 primary, all signs would point to anyone but Jordan Wright at this point. 

Though he was once part of the Wright’s inner sanctum, Ortega is now firmly aligned with Espaillat and has made attempts at ousting Wright. In September, he proposed a party rule change that would bar lobbyists from serving as a county leader. Though Wright is not officially a lobbyist, he holds the position of director for strategic planning for the government relations arm at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP, the well-connected law firm that routinely lobbies state government. Despite those blurred lines, Wright ran unopposed for reelection as county chair and won unanimously.

Wright downplayed the faction’s dissatisfaction, seeing it as par for the course.

“Listen, you're always going to have different factions,” said Wright, who’s been county chair since 2009. “I think I'm very collaborative and inclusive. But there are always gonna be people that don't like it. I work with everybody, okay?”

His supporters would agree, including Assembly Member Al Taylor, a Harlem lawmaker who ran for City Council against Salaam. Taylor is one of the members of Harlem’s political establishment who has endorsed Jordan Wright. 

“I would be the [last] person, if you were thinking politically and only for self gain, that would endorse his son, because I'm the guy that [has] taken zings at Keith, but not personally, he and I have a working relationship. And we move beyond our disagreements to get the job done,” Taylor said. 

Outside Wright’s circle, Daniel Cohen, a district leader in the neighboring 69th Assembly District, sees Wright as a transparent leader willing to hear all sides. 

“I defy you to find another county that's as transparent and open as New York County is,” Cohen said, dismissing concerns over the perceived conflict of interest Wright has as a county chair.

But if past events are any indication, Wright’s version of inclusivity ebbs and flows. 

“There are areas that do get along with Keith; the areas that don't get along with him, he will actively antagonize sometimes,” said Ben Yee, another district leader and a member of the faction of Lower Manhattan’s progressive reformers who attempted to dethrone Wright’s second-in-command in 2019.

Stifling dissent

Wright’s attempts to quash dissenters – for instance, staging attempts to remove them from party posts – are not isolated. In March, Wright was accused of improperly stripping two district leaders from their posts, including Espaillat. The decision led to a lawsuit. Wright, in a phone interview, did not acknowledge the existence of the lawsuit, but said his decision to remove Espaillat stemmed from the congressman no longer living in the district he represented. Ultimately, Espaillat, who did not respond to a request for comment, remained as a district leader and the lawsuit was dropped. 

Espaillat beat Wright in the 2016 Democratic congressional primary to replace retiring Rep. Charlie Rangel, who had represented the district for more than 40 years. Wright has not forgotten what happened in 2016 and neither have his allies. At a recent gathering, Dickens was caught on video saying the 13th Congressional District seat — stretching from Harlem to the Bronx — was “carved out to be represented by a Black,” a perceived dig at Espaillat, who is Dominican. Seated behind her was Wright, who shouted “attagirl” in response to her remarks. After some intense backlash, Dickens tried to clarify her comments, stressing that her hope is for African Americans in the district to coalesce around a Black candidate. 

Dickens’ comments were swiftly denounced by party leaders across the city – including the Bronx Democratic Party – but not by Wright. 

“At a time when Democrats should be solely focused on unity in order to win back the House and lead our city, state [and] country forward, it's disappointing that our attention has been swayed by division,” Wright said in his statement. “I appreciate and stand by the Assemblywoman's statement clarifying her comments, and hope we can all move forward understanding that we are always stronger together.”

Earlier this month, Wright invited district leaders to a private meeting, according to an email provided to City & State. The agenda was vague, though it outlined talks with Dickens and Wright. And it came with a warning: “Don’t invite anyone without the approval of facilitators.” 

Pictures provided to City & State show Keith and Jordan Wright standing near a whiteboard that said, “One Harlem Together,” an ironic statement as Ortega and others were left out of the meeting. 

Like father, like son?

With father and son in lockstep, it begs the question: would Jordan Wright go against his father’s wishes should the time come?

“My father and I have disagreed on many things in my 29 years on this earth, but we always work it out, because he's my father, and I love him and I'm his son,” he said. “I'm a Democrat. He's the Democratic leader. And I think that if there came a time that we would disagree, I would have a meeting with him. We’d sit down and hammer it out because that’s what Democrats – that's what leaders do.” 

Jordan may be his own man, as his father put it, but he seems to have picked up some of his father’s tactics when snuffing out dissenters. He’s gone after Joshua Clennon, a homegrown Harlemite who seeks to leverage his lived experience to craft legislation to better the district. 

This month, Clennon was knocked off the ballot after Jordan’s campaign challenged his petitions in court shortly after initially seeking help from the city Board of Elections. 

Clennon, who has since filed an appeal, said that Keith Wright’s fingerprints were all over the petition challenge. He sees the existence of the challenge as a validation that his candidacy is a true threat to the Wrights’ power.

“It seems as if this is a strategy of theirs; to utilize some of their greater access to election lawyers and resources,” Clennon said in an interview prior to a judge knocking him off. “They're really using every avenue available to really discourage new candidates from running and to basically be able to handpick candidates that really have no experience or track record in our community.”

Clennon previously backed Wright’s campaign for Congress, volunteering in 2016, while also working with him alongside the Manhattan Young Democrats. But that’s as far as it goes for Clennon, who said that he found Wright to be more concerned about “the mechanics of power than on substantive policy or ideology.”

Clennon lumped Wright in with other politicians who have forgotten about Harlem, which has seen its Black population shrink in the last ten years. Clennon said that he wants to reverse that trend by encouraging the construction of more affordable housing to keep rents reasonable. Jordan Wright told City & State that making life affordable for Harlemites is also a major focus for him. 

“We need to make sure that folks in Harlem are able to stay in Harlem,” he said. “I have a lot of friends who have gone to Atlanta, they’ve gone to Long Island, they’ve gone to Los Angeles.” 

Jordan Wright’s years serving in the local community board and being a son of Harlem have translated to a healthy campaign war chest. January campaign filings show Wright had raised about $60,000, nearly five times more than the less than $12,000 that Clennon had amassed.

A crowded field

Clennon isn’t the only figure the Wrights have to worry about. Craig Schley, a contracted lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice, has taken on the political machine before and won. In the latest race, Schley’s candidacy was challenged by Jordan Wright in a series of attempts. 

“The Assembly seat, the position I’m running for, is not owned by anyone. It’s not owned by a family, and you cannot bequeath this to someone and no one in that family can inherit it,” Schley said. “It belongs to the people.”

Schley seeks to make Harlem a livable place by introducing a bill in Albany that would not factor Area Median Income when attracting existing residents to new housing opportunities in a neighborhood. Schley also wants to encourage a greater presence for film and TV companies specifically in Harlem as a way of generating economic development. 

There’s also Shana Harmongoff, a candidate who once worked for Brian Benjamin, the former state senator and lieutenant governor. She’s running on a platform to boost mental health, advocate for seniors and promote the small business sector. While she is staying mostly above the political fray, she cast Jordan Wright’s actions in removing Clennon from the ballot as “unethical.” Part of her strategy to build her base involves registering residents to vote and courting the senior voting bloc.

Turnout could be a deciding factor in the race. Given the paltry participation rate in primary elections, every vote will matter. Ortega thinks that the Dominican vote in Hamilton Heights will be an integral swing vote commanded by Espaillat. The congressman has not taken an official position on the race yet, though he did hold a candidates forum at a Harlem restaurant in February. Jordan Wright, who had not yet officially declared his candidacy, did not attend.

The only Latina candidate in the race is Maria Ordoñez, a state committeewoman for the 70th Assembly District. But she may be too far to the left to win Espaillat’s backing. Ordoñez is the race’s leading progressive candidate, who seeks to stymie the wave of gentrification engulfing Harlem by pushing for the construction of affordable housing and tenants’ rights. On her agenda is also the need to improve healthcare access and promote a bottom-up democratic process among civic institutions.

Ordoñez and Wright have something in common: each mounted a challenge to Clennon’s campaign. But that’s about the only common ground they share. She and Clennon share the same message of a Harlem establishment that’s forgotten about the electorate. That’s evident, she says, in the Wrights’ form of politicking. 

“Every single time in every election in Harlem, it is about a power grab and keeping it in the family, right? And it's pretty clear that's what's happening with Jordan,” she said. “And it's really wrong, right? Because he’s just trying to build some sort of like the lineage, right? Like he were a king in Harlem. And that's not how politics works. That's not how democracy works.”