Another earthshaking political upset roared through Queens, New York, on Tuesday night when Tiffany Cabán claimed victory in a six-person primary race for Queens District Attorney—the first competitive race there in a generation.
Her leading opponent, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, trailed by just over 1,000 votes with 3,400 paper ballots outstanding and the Associated Press had the race as to close call Wednesday. But in even matching the support of the once formidable Queens machine nearly a year to the day after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked the national political scene with her primary upset win against powerful House Democrat Joe Crowley, Cabán's performance in a borough-wide race marked a new high-water mark for the rising left.
With high-profile endorsements from Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and then Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren, Cabán, a 31-year-old Latina public defender who identifies as queer, would be poised with a primary win to become the top law enforcement official in a county of 2.4 million people.
Her platform of “people-powered justice,” including ending cash bail, not prosecuting subway turnstile jumping, prosecuting the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, closing Rikers Island and decriminalizing sex work marks a massive departure from the traditional tough-on-crime, prosecutorial approach of DAs around the country including the longtime Queens DA, Richard Brown.
At her election night event at the La Boom nightclub, nestled next to a Volkswagen dealership, a diverse crowd of supporters erupted into a frenzy every time local news station NY1 updated the numbers in the extremely close race. They chanted “People Power!” “Tiffany, Tiffany, Tiffany!” and “Black Lives Matter” as the packed room shifted between nerves and excitement. When the DJ announced that the bar was closing at 10 p.m., people milled about under throbbing halos of green and red lights.
“When we started this thing they said I was too young. They said I didn’t look like a district attorney,” Cabán said stepping to the microphone a little after 11 as she continued to lead with 99 percent of precincts reporting. “They said we could not win but we did, it y’all.”
In an indicator of how significant the primary race is in the heavily Democratic borough, Cabán declared: “Tonight, we won the Queens District Attorney’s Office!”
Among the candidates the political neophyte faced were were Gregory Lasak, a former judge who drew support from law enforcement unions, and Katz, who had strong institutional and union support from the borough’s Democratic machine including Crowley. Katz also was backed by Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), who took over for Crowley as the chair of the Queens Democratic Party.
After being endorsed by the Working Families Party and Democratic Socialists of America, Cabán gained more national headlines as Senators and 2020 presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, threw their support behind her, as did The New York Times. The endorsements from the presidential candidates appeared to rub Meeks the wrong way, who tweeted: “If either of them wants to be President, I suggest they speak with us before they decide to speak for us.”
But they and the Times ultimately did pick the candidate voters wanted.
“Ms. Cabán identifies as a queer Latina,” the Times wrote in its endorsement. “She is of Puerto Rican descent and is the first in her family to graduate from college. She would bring a perspective suited to one of the world’s most diverse communities, one where elected officials have rarely reflected that reality.”
The eventual Democratic victor in Queens is set to face off against Republican Daniel Kogan in the general election in November as a wave of more progressive prosecutors have been elected throughout the country, including Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner — who was at Cabán's event Tuesday night — St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell, and Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins.
The second major upset in Queens in the past year represents a broader leftward lurch in the city with more organizing and resources devoted to down-ballot races and progressive causes. Last September, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo dispatched a high-profile challenge from Cynthia Nixon but a host of state senators in the Independent Democratic Conference or IDC lost to primary challengers, which has resulted in the passage of a progressive agenda that had long been stymied in Albany. Progressives also helped lead a major backlash to the planned construction of an Amazon campus in Long Island City.
Cabán—who has talked about decriminalizing sex work and also talked about arresting ICE agents in courtrooms—envisions an office that will not evaluate performance based on convictions but rather reduced incarceration and recidivism and increased community engagement, and that will provide updated information about sentencing policies, arrest rates and charging decisions.