The Machine Nemesis Who Helped Tiffany Cabán When She Needed It Most

Theodore Hamm Jun 26, 2019

The roots of the insurgent campaign that made Tiffany Cabán (in all likelihood) Queens’ next District Attorney on Tuesday night are well chronicled. Late last year, while Cabán’s three female pals encouraged her to run, the Queens for DA Accountability coalition sought out potential candidates.

Cabán began attending candidate forums in January, immediately distinguishing herself from Rory Lancman, who had been courting activist support. Unlike Lancman, Cabán is charismatic and deeply committed to criminal justice reform. And as a queer Latina public defender, she persuasively speaks from experience regarding how the system works.

Lancman’s approach to fundraising particularly turned off the Queens DSA. Lancman told the group in January that he needed a “war chest” in order to win, meaning he would take any money legally allowed — which included donations from foreclosure lawyers appearing in his wife’s courtroom.

In late January, Queens DSA voted overwhelmingly to back Cabán and in early February the wider NYC DSA followed suit. Cabán’s de-carceral platform also matched that of the DA Accountability coalition, which includes VOCAL-NY, Make the Road and the Rockaway Youth Task Force, along with the Queens DSA and many other groups. The candidate soon embraced the blueprint of No New Jails.

While the activist momentum for Cabán steadily escalated, one problem remained: money. And this leads to something that hasn’t been fully reported.

As ballot petitioning began in late February, Cabán leaned on John K. O’Hara, one of her earliest backers. After an initial $500 donation, O’Hara now kicked in $1,000, followed up by another $750 in late March and $500 in May. While that may seem like a modest sum compared to the Silicon and hedge-fund money that has since poured in, O’Hara was easily Cabán’s biggest donor during the critical phase when she and her volunteer supporters gathered enough signatures to gain a ballot line.

O’Hara, of course, is the longtime nemesis of the late Brooklyn DA Joe Hynes and the Brooklyn Democratic machine. Hynes and company selectively targeted O’Hara for illegal voting, making him one of only two people in New York State ever prosecuted for it (Susan B. Anthony was the other).

After Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez exonerated him in 2017, O’Hara filed a federal lawsuit against several members of Hynes’ inner circle, including former Assemblyman Jim Brennan. A federal judge recently ruled that O’Hara’s case may proceed.

Mere mention of O’Hara’s name triggers spasms of contempt from Hynes acolytes and machine toadies. But O’Hara liked Cabán and her platform from the jump and he viewed the insurgent campaign as a chance to disrupt the Queens machine.  

The location where O’Hara handed off the $1,000 check to Cabán is also notable. It was in the lobby of the Downtown Brooklyn building that the Working Families Party calls home — and Cabán was on her way upstairs to a WFP endorsement meeting.  

Last night at Cabán’s raucous victory party, O’Hara and I watched the returns nervously. As the late numbers moved in Cabán’s direction, the stage party started chanting “WFP!”

Near us, a group of folks clapped back with “DSA!”

O’Hara and I toasted Coronas. Viva Cabán!

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