With Tiffany Cabán’s declaration of victory in the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney on Tuesday night, one of the country’s most entrenched and extensive political machines suffered another blow — while those fighting mass incarceration scored a major point.
Though the contest is close and votes are still being counted, Cabán has good reason to assert her victory. She holds a small but significant lead of just under 1,100 votes with 3,400 affidavit (some of which may be disqualified) and absentee ballots left to be pored over. Although her nearest rival, Melinda Katz is refusing to concede, there were seven candidates to choose from and it is unlikely that enough yet-to-be-tabulated votes went in Katz’s favor to push her past Cabán.
What Katz, a career politician who will likely remain in her post as Queens Borough President, lacked in courtroom experience she made up for with her well-established ties to the real estate industry and the machinery of the Queens Democratic Party, both of which backed her campaign. Cabán, a queer Latinx public defender, on the other hand, had the support of a grassroots movement for criminal justice reform that has set its sights on instilling change at the local level. It’s strategy: install DAs in major metro areas across the United States whose goal is to keep people out of jail, not lock them up. So far, there’s Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Rachel Rollins in Boston, Wesley Bell in St. Louis and now, in all likelihood, Cabán in Queens.
Members of VOCAL-NY, Make the Road and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and other criminal justice reformers forged the “Queens for DA Accountability” coalition in January and found the candidate they were hoping for in Cabán, vigorously campaigning on her behalf. Many of those same activists were on hand Tuesday at a raucous election night party at a nightclub in Woodside, Queens. Deafening cheers went out from the crowd when Cabán declared herself the victor.
Her likely win is yet another bruise to the borough’s political establishment, following last year’s primary victory for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who bumped party boss Joe Crowley out of his congressional seat and campaigned this spring for Cabán.
New York progressives are showing that a well organized door-to-door ground game, coupled with many small campaign donations can tip the scales in favor of their preferred candidates. Earlier this month, legislators in Albany approved the most sweeping package of renters’ protections in the nation, following a months-long campaign by tenant unions and housing activists across the state.
A Cabán district attorney’s office signals a new day for criminal justice in Queens. She’s pledged to stop prosecuting misdemeanors like turnstile hopping and marijuana possession, which often serve as the first step toward ensnaring youth of color in the prison industrial complex. She won’t ask for cash bail and she’ll decriminalize sex work. During the campaign, her policy positions proved so popular that her opponents were shouting over each other to declare their full-throated endorsement of them, while insisting that they would institute reform in a responsible manner, unlike the public defender.
With the most money and the greatest name recognition, Katz emerged as Cabán’s nearest rival. As Bruce Gyory, an adjunct professor of political science at the University at Albany put it to the New York Times: “If Cabán wins, Queens wants revolutionary change. If Katz wins, they want evolutionary change and are not completely ready to break with the past.”
Though Katz has yet to concede, the winds appear to be blowing pretty strong in the direction of revolution.
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