Harvey Epstein Guns for Manhattan Democratic Party Leadership

The assemblymember wants to unseat Nico Minerva, right hand to party boss Keith Wright. The Manhattan Democrats vote on Thursday.

Chris Gelardi   ·   October 2, 2023
Assemblymember Harvey Epstein at a podium
Epstein speaks as Hochul signs his bill to expand student loan forgiveness for public servants in September 2022. | Kevin P. Coughlin / Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

These days, there are two main factions within the Manhattan Democratic Party: those who are loyal to the party boss — County Leader Keith Wright — and those who aren’t.

On Monday, Wright’s critics gained a new champion: Lower Manhattan Assemblymember Harvey Epstein informed his party that he’d run against Wright’s right-hand man, Domenico Minerva, in an election scheduled for Thursday evening. Epstein hopes to replace Minerva as county chair, the party’s number two position.

“We’re strengthening the party,” Epstein told New York Focus. He said the Democrats need to do a better job of mobilizing grassroots members, especially ahead of the 2024 general election. In the wake of last year’s midterms, other local parties like the Brooklyn Democrats came under fire for weak organizing efforts, which have likely contributed to Democrats losing the US House of Representatives.

“We don’t have enough people out doing the work,” he said. “For a progressive borough, I think we just don’t do enough.”

The assemblymember’s announcement comes as the current top two Manhattan Democrats find themselves embroiled in controversy. Last month, 18 district leaders proposed a policy that would have ousted Wright from the county leadership. The district leaders sought to ban working in lobbying while in the top position — and Wright oversees strategy at a powerful lobbying firm.

Last week, a party committee refused to take up the proposal.

“This issue was already discussed at great length and voted down,” Chung Seto, the chair of the committee, wrote in an email obtained by New York Focus. In 2019, with an assist from Minerva, Wright quashed a similar attempted overthrow.

“My wife’s not trying to be a judge.”

—Harvey Epstein

Wright has since come to Minerva’s aid: Over the summer, he stepped in — unsuccessfully — to circumvent a revolt against Minerva’s attempt to nullify the party’s judicial nomination process. Manhattan Democrats lashed out after Minerva tried to override the selection process for a powerful judicial nomination: A screening panel had declined to recommend his wife for the job.

“There’s a real opportunity to move past some of the controversy we’ve seen over the past few months and bring someone to office for the county whose goal it is to make the Democrats [stronger],” said Epstein, explaining his candidacy for county chair. “My wife’s not trying to be a judge.”

Epstein will be running from the left of current leadership, but he has a politically eclectic coalition behind him.

Among them are fellow liberal-progressives, as well as good government advocates, who criticize Wright and Minerva’s reign as compromised.

“It’s time for a new perspective and direction as our party builds toward 2024,” said District Leader E.E. Keenan. “I like and respect Nico Minerva as a person and a professional, but I’ll be supporting Harvey Epstein.”

Reached for comment, Minerva shot back that Epstein, as a legislator who benefits from local party campaign support, is the one who is compromised.

Elected officials “carrying the reform banner,” he said, “should not also hold party posts.” He added that Epstein should resign from his Assembly post if he wants to run for county chair.

Minerva also criticized Epstein’s lack of participation in the county party. “Harvey is a good assemblyman, but ... he’s not even a member of the county committee, and he’s running to chair it,” he said, and claimed that Epstein does not attend meetings.

“I have attended meetings, have been active, and will continue to be active in my community and party,” Epstein responded.

Also among the coalition gunning for leadership is Wright’s prime Manhattan Democratic political rival, US Representative Adriano Espaillat, the centrist boss of the upper Manhattan political machine, whose closest allies were among those pushing for the lobbying ban. Espaillat defeated Wright in a 2016 congressional primary, and has jostled with the party leader for influence for years.

Whatever happens, the messy alliances and dynamics have party watchers predicting an eventful election Thursday.

“I’m going to buy a popcorn machine and sell popcorn at the County Committee meeting,” local Democrat Michael Hano, who ran against Espaillat in his recent House race, wrote in another email chain reviewed by New York Focus. “I’m going to be rich!!!”

Update: October 2, 2023 — This story had been updated with comments from Domenico Minerva, a response from Harvey Epstein given after publication, and a clarification by Minerva.

Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
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