Keith Wright, like any ambitious politician, has always wanted to climb the ladder. In 2005, he ran for Manhattan borough president and lost. He tried to succeed Charlie Rangel in Congress and lost again. While leading the Manhattan Democratic Party, he co-chaired the State Party, serving as one of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s most prominent minions.
Now Wright, a former state assemblyman and the son of a prominent judge, is cashing in his chips. After losing his congressional race last year, he is joining one of the city’s powerhouse lobbying firms, Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, LLP, all the more influential now that founder Sid Davidoff has an old friend in City Hall, Mayor Bill de Blasio. Wright, who had a base salary in Albany of $79,500, will be moving up several tax brackets.
The trouble is, Wright insists he will keep chairing the Manhattan Democratic Party while working as a lobbyist. It’s an egregious decision, and an old-world political maneuver of the first order. Wright should be ashamed for being so craven. Odds are, he won’t be.
The arrangement is legal, as Wright’s spokeswoman has pointed out. He’s not the first person to do this, either: Stanley Friedman, the Bronx county boss in the 1980s, lobbied for taxi-fleet owners before he went to prison on corruption charges.
If there’s any saving grace in Wright’s unethical play, it’s that he wields relatively little power as a county leader. Since the fall of Tammany Hall more than a half century ago, Manhattan’s Democratic Party has been one of, if not the weakest, county organizations in the city. A concerted reform movement coupled with a natural decentralizing of power—neighborhoods have their own power brokers—sapped much of its clout. In other boroughs, particularly the Queens and Bronx, party bosses can control elected officials and even move a few votes. Wright isn’t so lucky.
However, like other county leaders, he still plays a role in picking judges. Little understood by the general public, the city’s judicial system is one of the last bastions of patronage for county leaders. The mayor’s office appoints criminal and family court judges, while civil and supreme court judges are elected, allowing party bosses to fill the bench and various legal jobs with the well-connected.
Judicial elections are incredibly low turnout affairs and the party-approved candidates often win. For supreme court judges, there aren’t even Democratic primaries: a party-rigged judicial convention nominates a Democrat to run in a general election, and in overwhelmingly Democratic boroughs like Manhattan, this candidate is assured victory.
As the party chairman, Wright has enough say (if less than his outer borough brethren) over who becomes a judge on who doesn’t in his county. Imagine that a judge close to Wright—perhaps, even, someone who owes a career to him—is ruling on a lawsuit that could damage one of Davidoff Hutcher & Citron’s well-heeled clients. Perhaps Wright, in his role as a lobbyist, is having dinner with this judge and arguing the merits of a ruling the judge can make. The judge decides to pay deference to his old friend, still a political boss with weight to throw around.
Or maybe one of Wright’s own clients is getting sued. The client would like the suit thrown out. The client knows he’s paying Wright a lot of money because there must be a few judges in Manhattan’s vast legal system who owe Wright something. Wright doesn’t want to disappoint.
Or maybe there’s a smart, young lawyer — or just an opportunistic one — who would like to be a judge in criminal or family court. He cuts Wright a check and asks him to put in a good word at City Hall, since he’s one of the ace lobbyists in town. Next year, the lawyer is appointed to the criminal court. Like magic.
The conflicts will keep coming. Though Wright was never a lawmaker on the city level — he will be prohibited from lobbying his old colleagues in the state legislature for two years — he has forged ties with the City Council in his capacity as county leader. Soon he will be going to City Hall as a lobbyist, advocating for organizations that want money from city government or fighting for a certain bill to be passed or killed.
A future piece of legislation might be a few votes shy of making it through the Council, and Wright could tell a few of the Manhattan lawmakers he’s chummy with that they should vote a certain way or face the wrath of his Democratic organization, however beleaguered it may be. Does a council member, waffling over the merits of the bill, decide it’s not worth bucking lobbyist/county leader Wright?
“Every lobbying firm and law firm must confront even the potential of a conflict of interest. This is no different,” Wright told the Voice in a statement. “As one of New York’s premier law and government relations firms, with an active Federal State and City practice for over 40 years, DHC is well aware of the restrictions of the Public Officers Law, and I will follow the law.” Wright added that there are “also internal mechanisms in place here to ensure there will be no conflicts in the work that I conduct on behalf of my clients.”
It’s possible nothing untoward comes of Wright’s dual roles. It’s possible he’s a brilliant ethicist and a philosopher king. But what is the public, already so disdainful of the political class, supposed to think of an arrangement where an individual can lobby the system and serve within it? What does this say about the health of the Democratic Party in New York City?