Keith Wright Emerges, Boldly, From Rangel's Shadow

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[Harlem Politics]

Is there a political void in Harlem? Could be.

David Paterson, the governor that was, departed the scene after a sometimes bizarre series of missteps led him to abort his campaign for election to a full term in Albany. And Charles Rangel, a man who has served his Harlem’s Fifteenth District with vigor and panache for 40 years, was censured by his colleagues in Congress after various charges of financial malfeasance were leveled against him. Though he retained his seat last November and has already filed papers to run again in 2012, questions linger about the 80-year-old Rangel’s standing in the community.

Enter Assemblyman Keith Wright.

If there is a void to be filled, Wright, a steady and dependable figure on New York’s rough-and-tumble political stage for 18 years, may well be the man for the job – as congressman in the 15th District, in the seat now occupied by Rangel. He acknowledges his belief that his track record and would serve him well in Washington. And Rangel himself, before deciding to run again in 2012, actually mentioned Wright as a possible successor.

But the Assemblyman apparently is not the kind of guy who likes to step on people’s toes.

When asked if he sees himself supplanting Rangel as Harlem’s political powerhouse, he responded with the tact of a career diplomat. “He’s looking younger and younger each day,” said Wright earnestly, of Rangel. “He looks like he’s ready to serve another two or three decades. And,” he added, “Charlie is an icon. Charlie being there adds to a real sense of stability. We are lucky to have him as a public servant.”

But Wright also said that, someday, “I would be more than interested in succeeding him.”

He has kind words for David Paterson, saying he believed that history will judge him favorably. “He was thrust into the position [the governorship] with two days notice,” said Wright. “He helped a lot of people. He didn’t do so well when it came to public relations.”

Wright’s own political stock, in Albany as well as Harlem is rising exponentially. Recently Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver appointed him to head the Assembly's Labor Committee. "I was proud to do it,” said Silver. “Throughout his career, Keith Wright has been a stalwart advocate for the working men and women of New York State. “No voice was more vocal in the hard-fought battle to bring justice to domestic workers.  No one knows better the struggle of workers.   I look forward, as always, to working with him."

Wright is not merely blowing smoke when he says he is ready to go to Washington. Since his election to the State Assembly in Harlem’s 70th District in 1992, he has succeeded admirably in Albany, and not only on behalf of his constituents in Harlem.  As chair of the Assembly’s Social Services Committee, he has fought for low-income households in areas as welfare, Medicaid, and energy assistance.  He has sponsored legislation that would create a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights that would guarantee these often overlooked but essential people fair wages, working hours and benefits.

Closer to home, he is chair of the Harlem Community Development Corporation, in which position he has sought, with limited resources, to develop and renovate property, including homes and small businesses. That he is eminently respected in the 70th District is evidenced by his long tenure in office.

In addition to his duties in Albany, Wright has served as chairman of the Manhattan Democratic Party since September 2009, when he succeeded Herman “Denny” Farrell. Among his responsibilities in this influential position is to vet judicial candidates for the criminal and civil courts of Manhattan. In less than a year and a half he seen nine of the candidates he’s approved ascend to the bench, including four criminal court judges and five civil court judges. That sort of tangible success turns political heads.

“You can never, ever lose sight of what a county leader and the organization is supposed to do,” says Wright. “The charge of the organization is to make good judges. That is the bedrock of what we do.”

As the top man at Manhattan’s Democratic Club, Wright notes wryly, he holds the position that was famously abused in the late nineteenth century by the legendary William “Boss” Tweed, whose iron-fisted rule and staggeringly corrupt ways enriched and empowered him and his cronies. It also led to his imprisonment. “I don’t think that’s gonna happen to me,” says today’s chairman, smiling.

Wright says he must walk a political tightrope as he seeks to promote the Democratic agenda in an incredibly diverse community. “This is Manhattan, a place that is home to the richest of the rich, the poorest of the poor and a hustling and bustling middle class. We’ve got Jewish people, Christians Muslim, Hindus and Buddhists; white and black, and immigrants from all over the world. You have to be sensitive, to be able to relate to all persons. And you have to try and get them excited about the political process.”

Wright has quite a distinguished pedigree. He is the son of none other than Judge (“Turn ’Em Loose) Bruce Wright (1918-2005), who became famous –  many would say notorious – in the 1970s for his practice of setting low bail  for youthful and minority suspects, at  a time when New York City was a cauldron of violent crime.  The young Wright had an exemplary education, attending the Ethical Cultural School on Manhattan’s Central Park West and the Fieldston School, in the Bronx, and earned his Bachelor’s Degree from Tufts University. He subsequently studied law at Rutgers Law School.

Wright, who says he is extremely mindful of the importance of his maintaining a close, empathetic relationship with the many ethnic groups that populate the city, grew up with and has spent much of his professional life in close association with the Jewish community.

“I was part of a great experiment, in 1959, at the Ethical Culture School, which was started by Reform Jews,” says Wright. The only other Black kids there were David Dinkins Jr., Harry Belafonte’s kid and I. All my friends were getting bar mitzvah,” he recalled,  “and when they were going to Hebrew school to prepare,  I said, ‘Let me go to Hebrew school for two weeks.’ My relationship with the Jewish community has always been good.”

“This year, we ain’t got no money,” is how Wright describes the situation in Albany. “We need to argue about where we need to find additional revenue.” He is referring, of course, to Gov. Cuomo’s recent $132 billion budget proposal, which if implemented will slash $659 million from New York City alone, including, reportedly, $579 million from the school system.

Wright describes himself as “not a big fan” of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s choice of Cathie Black to replace Joel Klein as Chancellor of the New York City school system.  A veteran corporate media executive, Black won the job despite the fact that she did not have the state-mandated three years’ experience in education required for the position.

“Yes, she’s done well in the business world,” said Wright.  “But education? There’s no connection.”

The economy is bad, jobs are scarce, yet Wright oozes optimism about Harlem. New businesses and new people are still flocking to the neighborhood. Wright notes that he attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony last week for the Aloft Harlem, a boutique hotel on 124th St and Frederick Douglass Blvd.  A swanky new downtown-style bar and restaurant called the Red Rooster recently opened its doors on Lenox Ave and 125th St. And, said Wright enthusiastically, there is a plan to create a full-service hotel at the location of the old Loew’s Victoria Theater, a few doors down from the Apollo Theater.

The ever-expanding Columbia University is busy creating a new campus near Harlem’s Western edge. The institution plans to spend $6 billion over the next 25 years on the project, which is projected to create thousands of jobs – 50 percent of which are designated for Harlem residents along with a new public school and the creation of a fund to aid struggling businesses in the area. Wright said the community was able to carve out a benefits agreement that` will deliver $100 million in givebacks to minimize the fallout from the expansion.

“Columbia has been good,” said Wright simply. Gentrification continues to alter Harlem’s physical and demographic landscape. Wright, who estimates that Central Harlem is probably 10 to 12% white, said, “They ain’t coming to Harlem because they love Black people so much. It’s a matter of economics. They are getting priced out of Gramercy Park and Greenwich Village and the Upper Eastside, and things are a little more affordable here.”

The economic downturn that has bedeviled the entire country has slowed the pace of gentrification considerably. Half of the luxury condos built since the boom began are still empty, according to Wright. “The developers need to reconfigure their business plan and make them more affordable,” he said. “It would help stabilize the community.”

Wright has given much thought to the changes, both good and bad, that gentrification has effected in Harlem.  “Elected officials must ensure that our folks are not getting harassed illegally by landlords. And we want to ensure that the people who actually made the neighborhood attractive to others remain as long as they want to stay,” said the Assemblyman. “Harlem has always had a cross-section of people; we’ve all lived together here. The place is a state of mind; it’s about loving your neighborhood and taking care of it.”

"Speaking Truth To Empower."

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