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Tiffany Cabán’s Last Stand

Important questions surround the Working Family Party’s handling of the final stage of the Queens DA race.

Theodore Hamm Oct 16

UPDATE (October 16): The story below has been updated to include new financial disclosure filings released yesterday.

Although the NY Working Families Party deserves credit for helping Tiffany Cabán initially prevail on primary night, there are some important questions surrounding the WFP’s handling of the next stage of the campaign, which ended last week with Cabán’s concession.

Money and strategy are of course crucial to any campaign, whether insurgent or establishment. But those two things are really all that matters after the votes are in, because the candidate’s appeal and the issues in the race are no longer in play.

On the fundraising front, the Cabán campaign had parallel tracks: the WFP raised money and paid its staff to work on behalf of Cabán while the specific state campaign account — Cabán for Queens — did the same.

WFP’s coffers were flush with major donor contributions.

Two days after the primary, an LGBT activist named Katrina Schaffer donated $117,000 to the WFP (the maximum contribution allowed to a political party in New York State). In early July, Schaffer, whose wealth appears to come from family connections to Hallmark, then gave $500 to Cabán for Queens. It’s not clear why Schaffer routed the entire sizable sum to the WFP, when she could have given Cabán for Queens $35,000, the campaign maximum.

A week after Schaffer’s money came in, the WFP brought the PR and consulting firm BerlinRosen aboard the campaign. As reported in the party’s October financial disclosure statement, the WFP paid BerlinRosen $33,000 at the end of July. It’s hard to see why the firm’s services were needed. The Cabán campaign had garnered plenty of positive media coverage throughout the final month of the primary race.

As Ross Barkan noted at the time, given that “Cabán and her allies repeatedly denounced” the influence of real estate money in city politics, hiring a developer-friendly consulting firm seems like a contradiction. Large donors to Melinda Katz’s campaign including the Walentas family have close ties to BerlinRosen.

As WFP spokesperson Joe Dinkin explained to The Indypendent, BerlinRosen has also worked for “many of the leading candidates that have advanced the movement to transform our broken criminal justice system, [including] Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner.” That work, however, took place during the actual campaign, not its aftermath.

The week after BerlinRosen came aboard, George Soros wrote a $45,000 check to the WFP. The relationship between the Soros family and the WFP had taken shape during Zephyr Teachout’s 2018 campaign for New York Attorney General. Throughout the homestretch of the primary, rumors circulated that the Soros network would deliver large sums to Cabán.

Two weeks before the Queens primary, two progressive candidates won DA races in Virginia helped by a combined $1 million from Soros’ Justice and Public Safety PAC. On June 21, that committee sent $70,000 to the WFP. Thus, instead of seven figures, Caban’s campaign got just over six figures from Soros and his PAC — and it went to the WFP.

The allocation of money is important because Cabán’s campaign was on the hook for the fees it needed to pay election lawyers Jerry Goldfeder and Renee Paradis.* The campaign’s July and October filings revealed that the Cabán team spent just over $156,000 in post-primary legal fees including $75,000 to Goldfeder’s firm and $61,016 to Paradis. That’s a hefty sum, especially given that there were no appeals. By contrast, most of Katz’s legal work was done pro-bono by leading Queens machine lawyers.

Asked whether the WFP considered Goldfeder’s long-standing ties to the party’s nemesis, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a problem when retaining him, the WFP’s Dinkin replied, “We brought [Goldfeder] on because he is one of the best election lawyers around. He has worked for many candidates across the spectrum of Democratic politics.”

Critics have voiced skepticism regarding whether Goldfeder presented an effective challenge in Queens Supreme Court regarding the rejected affidavit ballots. But according to Dinkin, “We think Goldfeder mounted a strong case for Tiffany.”

As The Indy previously noted, the Republican judge in the case was widely expected to issue a narrow ruling that would not allow enough of the rejected affidavit ballots to be counted. Appeals to higher courts are standard practice in disputed election cases, however. Both the recently passed and pending voting legislation in Albany also mean that previous case law may no longer apply to certain rejections — e.g. Queens voters who cast affidavit ballots from the wrong polling site, leading to 230 uncounted votes. 

Even if the New York courts upheld the initial ruling, a federal judge may have viewed things differently, applying First and Fourteenth Amendment precedents. According to NYU Law professor Burt Neuborne, who led a successful federal challenge to New York’s restrictive election laws on behalf of John McCain in his 2000 presidential primary run, voters need to “trust the process” regarding casting affidavit ballots. If a federal judge viewed the Board of Elections (BoE) rejections as “technical traps” set by party machines, he or she could have ordered the ballots to be counted.

But Cabán, her legal team and the WFP saw no path. “If there were a viable basis to appeal or pursue a federal claim, we would have taken it,” Goldfeder tells The Indy. Cabán thus conceded. 

Reporters from The Indy and other news outlets await a response to a FOIL request to the BoE regarding a breakdown of the reasons for affidavit ballot rejections. Until that information becomes clear, questions will linger about whether Cabán conceded too soon and why. 

UPDATE: Following the publication of this article, Cabán, who initially declined to comment, sent The Indy the following statement: 

“People who should have had their votes counted were disenfranchised by the BoE and New York’s backward laws. We did everything we reasonably could[,] given all the circumstances, and I’m proud of the campaign team and the folks who helped during the recount. We are building a movement — and we’re just getting started.”

*The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Cabán would not file her next disclosure report until January 2020. Other candidates who lost the primary do not need to file until that date, but since there was substantial activity in her campaign account, Cabán filed a 32-day Pre-General Election Report.