The criminal justice reform group that helped elect Larry Krasner, Wesley Bell, and Rachael Rollins is weighing in on the first competitive district attorney election in Queens, New York, in 28 years.
Real Justice PAC, which works to elect “reform-minded prosecutors” and has helped to reshape the criminal justice landscape through the ballot box, announced over the weekend that they’re backing Tiffany Cabán, a Queens native and former public defender, for Queens district attorney. The group cited her plans to decriminalize sex work and end cash bail for all crimes, as well as her support for the city’s “No New Jails” initiative.
On Tuesday, the Working Families Party, an increasingly influential political force in New York City politics, also threw its weight behind Cabán. Color of Change PAC is considering endorsing in the race, but has yet to do so. Our Revolution, an offshoot of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, is also following the race, but has not made a decision on whether they’ll endorse any candidate.
The support of Real Justice and the Working Families Party comes after an endorsement from the Queens chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and Cabán is also being boosted by staff and volunteers from the congressional campaign of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, all of which suggests the left is finally coalescing around a candidate in the crowded primary, which is set for June 25. Ocasio-Cortez told The Intercept she hadn’t made an endorsement in the race and didn’t think she would “unless something really changes.”
With three months to go, however, Cabán is far behind in fundraising, meaning she’ll need to rely on a grassroots surge to lift her over the top.
The race is part of a generation reshaping New York City politics, long dominated by borough machines and now in flux after the election of Ocasio-Cortez in the Bronx and Queens and Jumaane Williams as public advocate. That followed a prior upset win, when Bill de Blasio beat back an establishment opponent in 2013 to become mayor, even as he’s since disappointed some on the left since then. On Monday, Bronx Rep. José Serrano announced his retirement, opening a new seat that could be claimed by the progressive wave. In 2018, insurgent challengers in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx unseated longtime state senators, producing the most progressive Albany legislature in generations and upending power dynamics in the city. Electing a progressive prosecutor would put an exclamation mark on that shift.
Critics of outgoing DA Dick Brown say his office was behind the curve on implementing reforms that his colleagues across the country were quicker to adopt, like declining to prosecute low-level, nonviolent offenses like marijuana use or fare evasion, or establishing units to review and overturn wrongful convictions. Those are among the issues that the seven candidates in the crowded field have been most vocal about.
But unlike last year’s DA races, the Queens election is not so much a referendum on Brown’s tough-on-crime doctrine as it is a test of who can “out-Krasner Krasner,” as one strategist close to the race put it.
There’s a fear that the potential for truly radical change in the DA’s office will be lost in a field of candidates who may sound the same, but whose visions of reform are vastly different, those involved with the race told The Intercept. In the running, alongside Cabán, to make it onto the ballot for the June primary are Queens Borough President Melinda Katz; New York City Council Member Rory Lancman; former prosecutor and retired New York Supreme Court Justice Greg Lasak; former Washington, D.C., Deputy Attorney General Mina Malik; New York City attorney Betty Lugo; and Jose Nieves, former deputy chief for special investigations in the New York state attorney general’s office.
The various candidates largely echo one another when it comes to ending mass incarceration, decriminalizing offenses related to poverty and mental illness, and implementing a restorative approach to justice. They all want to establish a conviction review unit, pointing out that the Queens DA office is the last in the city without one. But they differ on specifics, like which crimes they would decline to prosecute, what to do about Rikers, and whether or not to construct new jails. And not all pledges to end cash bail are equal, candidates and organizers point out.
“Everybody sort of has these progressive ideas and the buzzwords and all that,” Ingrid Gomez, interim co-chair for the Queens United Independent Progressive caucus, or QUIP, told The Intercept in an interview. The group hosted a forum with six of the candidates in late February. “But when it gets down to detail, to the granular part of it,” Gomez said, “I think then you’ll see the different shades of progressivism.”
“There are people who don’t have the courtroom experience, prosecutorial experience,” Gomez explained. “And they are in this race because they’re getting term-limited. Or they want it to be the stepping stone to the next office. I want to see someone there who has the experience. I really think that we need to see the person’s experience before all else.”
While she has yet to raise a substantial amount of money, Cabán’s campaign scored big with the backing of the Real Justice PAC, Queens Democratic Socialists of America, the Working Families Party, the New Queens Democrats, Citizen Action, and New York Progressive Action Network. At 31, she’s the youngest candidate vying for a spot on the ballot. And she’s bringing a community-focused energy to the race that feels and sounds different than that of all her opponents.
Candidates need 4,000 signatures to get on the ballot, plus an extra couple thousand in case they have to fight a party challenge, strategists say. The petitioning period ends April 4. All in all, that costs around $50,000, strategists said, though it can be done with far less given enough volunteer power.
With the help of the Queens DSA and organizers who volunteered for Ocasio-Cortez, Cabán’s campaign is running a vigorous volunteer field effort to educate voters around the election. Seth Pollack, spokesperson for the Cabán campaign, told The Intercept that the campaign is “very confident” she’ll make it onto the ballot, “thanks in large part to the campaign’s enthusiastic volunteers and the incredible hard work of DSA.”
Local DSA activists see Cabán’s candidacy as a step toward a longer-term prison abolition project in collaboration with her support for the city’s No New Jails initiative, Sasha Weinstein told The Intercept. He’s part of the Queens DSA Electoral Working Group Committee and serves as the group’s liaison to the Cabán campaign. “De Blasio wants to spend $10.5 billion on 6,000 new [jail] beds across New York City,” Weinstein said, “and that’s because the word ‘progressive’ doesn’t mean anything.”
Working Families Party Executive Director Bill Lipton said in a statement that Cabán represented the best chance at a new path. “As a public defender, a queer Latina, and a progressive champion, Tiffany Cabán is the leader we need as Queens District Attorney. For too long, the criminal justice system in our city has held people of color to one standard—and wealthy, white New Yorkers to another. Cabán has charted a new path during her campaign, pledging to use the District Attorney’s office to fight for racial, social and economic justice,” he said.
What sets Cabán apart, in addition to her pledge not to take any corporate political action committee money, is her holistic approach to addressing community and generational trauma as the root cause of crime. She’s the only candidate who talks about trying to eliminate crime in that way, which she says is a function of her experience representing over 1,000 clients as a public defender. For her, the decision to run “felt like just the next thing that I’m doing for my clients,” she told The Intercept in an interview. “Very much so the natural progression in my advocacy for my clients.”
Her background as a queer, Latina public defender from a low-income community is inextricable from her platform, she told the QUIP forum in February, because “my experiences matter,” she said. “That is not identity politics; that is me speaking to my understanding around intersectionality and the effects of individual and generational trauma on our communities,” Cabán told the audience, describing domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental illness in both her personal and family life.
Cabán also supports closing Rikers. And her office would decline to prosecute low-level marijuana offenses, fare evasion, airport taxis, welfare fraud, sex work, massage parlors, or unlicensed driving in any case.
She also wants to end cash bail for all crimes and thinks that only ending cash bail for nonviolent felonies ultimately causes more harm than good. “Then nothing is changing for anything that’s considered serious,” she told The Intercept. “There are a host of crimes on the books that are technically violent felonies, but there isn’t any violence involved,” she explained. “Burglary in the second degree is a violent felony. But also, under the law, if I go into a building and steal Amazon packages from the lobby, that’s a burglary in the second degree, and it’s a violent felony,” she said. “And it’s not the thing that people think about when you talk about violent crime.”
In addition to assigning assistant district attorneys to each community — a proposal that Lasak’s campaign has also adopted — Cabán plans to hold regular town halls and meetings with Queens residents. She would reinvest profits that the DA’s office typically receives from asset forfeitures into organizations and services selected by the community. “The idea that we can stop these things from happening in the first place by allowing our communities to decide how to reinvest in their families, in their schools, things that community members might suggest,” she told the QUIP forum.
Cabán thinks the size of the field is a good thing. “I think it’s great that there are so many people in the mix in this race,” she told The Intercept. But she echoed Gomez’s concerns. “I think it’s great that people are talking about criminal justice reform,” Cabán said. “I also see some of the dangers that come along with it. There are certainly folks that are getting in the mix that know the progressive playbook at this point.”
“They know the things to say, they’re out there,” Cabán explained. “And there seems to be a disconnect between knowing the policies and what you’re supposed to say, ’cause they’re right — and having that tie to our communities and that investment in making sure that these policies have the intended impacts. And that our communities are the ones that are at the forefront of forming the policies.”
Of the other six candidates in the running, Katz, Lasak, and Lancman lead the pack favored to make it past the county petitioning period and onto the actual ballot, strategists say. Those three have the most political clout and have raised the most money so far. Katz and Lancman have both amassed over $1 million — some of which is left over from their citywide office accounts. Lasak has raised close to $900,000, his campaign told The Intercept.
Katz is the only candidate to have waged and won a competitive borough-wide primary, as she did in her bid for borough president, a role to which she was elected in 2013 and again in 2017 — and for which she’s widely popular among Queens residents and politicians. She’s term-limited in 2021, meaning that she needed to find a new office to run for. She has also mulled a run for mayor.
She’s seen as the strongest of the mainstream Democrats vying for the nomination. And Queens County Democrats argue that she can appeal to the widest base of voters in the area. But activists are skeptical of how deep her progressive roots go, pointing to Katz’s 1995 state assembly vote to reinstate the death penalty. Katz now says she opposes it.
Former Congressperson Joe Crowley, who until recently chaired the Queens County Democratic Party, is backing Katz. The Queens Democrats endorsed her for the nomination in early February. New York Rep. Greg Meeks signed on soon after, saying in a statement that Katz would bring “important reforms” to the office. New York Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Tom Suozzi have also endorsed her. Three city council members, one state senator, and six Assembly members have also endorsed Katz. And she has union support from the New York Hotel Trades Council, the International Union of Elevator Constructors Local One, the SMART Transportation Division, and Teamsters Local 327. She’s also amassed significant support among several rabbis, imams, reverends, and other community leaders.
For Katz, scoring Meeks’s backing was hugely significant. Strategists close to the race say it was a blow in particular to Lasak, who shared an office with the congressperson during Meeks’s time as a Queens assistant district attorney. Lasak’s campaign took another hit with Katz’s endorsement from Crowley. Lasak’s campaign manager said it amounted to “support [for] a career politician wholly unqualified to do the job she’s running for.”
Katz’s opponents argue she has no experience in either defending or prosecuting the criminal cases the office would oversee. They say her decision to run for DA is more a function of her limited term than of her commitment to reforming the way the office prosecutes crime.
Katz wants to close Rikers, but supports de Blasio’s plan to open four new jails, saying it’s “a better model” than Rikers “for ensuring cases are heard in a timely manner.” She takes a more cautious approach than her opponents to cutting the number of crimes the DA’s office would prosecute, saying that aside from declining to prosecute low-level marijuana offenses, she wants to “consider each arrest on its merits before declining to prosecute.” That includes nonviolent offenses like welfare fraud and fare evasion. And she wants to eliminate cash bail, but only for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.
Katz ended her comments at the February QUIP forum with a nod to her name recognition. Describing her work on a Queens initiative to seal 10-year-old convictions, she boasted that “over 140 people showed up” to participate, “partly because my name was on it.” Another forgiveness program, she said, only had 200 participants when it started under Brown. “When I put my name on it, over 500 people showed up.”
Lancman is a former state Assembly member who’s served on the City Council since 2013. Both there and in the state Assembly, he’s served on committees overseeing the justice system. Like Katz, he’s term-limited in 2021 and has explored the possibility of running for mayor. In 2012, he lost the Democratic primary for New York’s 6th Congressional District to now-Congressperson Grace Meng.
Lancman, like his opponents, wants to cut the number of crimes the DA charges. He wants to implement open file discovery, change the office’s incentive structure to reward diversion over conviction, and improve transparency and accountability by making data on pleas, prosecutions, sentencing, and demographics public. In addition to declining to prosecute low-level marijuana offenses, Lancman would not prosecute fare evasion, prostitution, or unlicensed driving in any case. He said that in general, he would not prosecute small cases of welfare fraud — only “egregious” cases. And he wants to end cash bail for all crimes.
He also wants to close Rikers. And he proudly supports de Blasio’s plan to build four new jails. “I am one of the plan’s earliest and leading advocates, and the only candidate to fully support the plan,” he wrote in an email to The Intercept. Lancman’s critics raise concerns about his support for adding 1,000 police officers to the New York City Police Department at a time when the city’s crime was decreasing, and for taking contributions from the prison and real estate industries, including corrections officers’ PACs.
He touts endorsements from several labor unions and community leaders, including Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr. Lancman has also been endorsed by the Rockaway Youth Action Fund, New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, New York state Sen. James Sanders Jr., the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3, the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local Union 1, the New York/New Jersey Regional Joint Board of Workers United, Council Member Antonio Reynoso, and two Assembly members, among others.
Lancman told The Intercept that expanding the NYPD force “unquestionably helped the community.” He said it allowed the establishment of a neighborhood officer coordination program that gave officers more time to interact with communities. “We supported that increase in cops primarily so that we could have a different kind of policing in New York City,” he said. “So that cops are doing more than just running from 911 call to 911 call.”
Lancman also told The Intercept he will continue taking money from prison employees and the real estate industry. “I’m gonna raise money within the limits of the law,” he said, “but I am not fighting this fight with one hand tied behind my back.” Lancman said he doesn’t see wanting to close Rikers as being in conflict with taking contributions from its corrections officers’ union. “The corrections officers are working people, almost overwhelmingly people of color, who themselves are forced to endure a violent and dystopian environment alongside the inmates,” he said. “As someone who supports working people,” he continued, “one has to be empathetic to their circumstance.”
He doesn’t see the fact that challengers like Cabán aren’t taking corporate money as a problem, either. “God bless anybody who is able to raise the $2 million dollars it realistically takes to run a borough-wide district attorney’s race within five months by limiting their contributions in some way,” he said. “But I am not willing to risk being overwhelmed by the resources of opponents who will give us more of the same at the district attorney’s office.”
Last year, one of Lancman’s affiliated campaign committees received $20,000 from an Adjfam Management Corp. based in New York. That company, in 2015, gave $10,000 to the Make America Great Again Super PAC.
Lasak prosecuted violent crimes in Brown’s office for 25 years and has arguably the most experience of the candidates running — though not necessarily the kind that the new political environment views as favorable. He headed the homicide, major offense, and special victims bureaus, and also helped to create the office’s first bureau dedicated to domestic violence. Lasak was elected to New York state’s Supreme Court in 2004. He left the court with 13 years remaining in his term to launch his bid for district attorney. “I tried cop killers, and in addition, I prosecuted cops that violated the law. The breadth of experience I have is unparalleled,” he told The Intercept.
Lasak says he pioneered reforms during his time as a prosecutor and worked to overturn wrongful convictions and reform cash bail before those progressive policies became popular. He helped to exonerate at least 20 people during his time in the DA’s office. Like Cabán, Lasak wants to assign “community DAs” to liaise with and take input from community members on how to best serve them. He also wants to use tax revenue from legal marijuana sales to help lower court and medical fees associated with diversion and treatment programs. And he wants to bring a young adult court to Queens to more appropriately serve adults between the ages of 18 and 24.
But areas of Lasak’s platform lean further to the right than most of his opponents — particularly his position on closing Rikers. He’s the only candidate who doesn’t support closing Rikers — or keeping it open, for that matter — and thinks that the jail’s location isn’t within the DA’s purview. But he says there should be community buy-in on any decisions made to construct new jails. “My opinion is that the main thing is, who is sitting in the jail?” Lasak told the Intercept. “My main concern is to be sure that there’s no one sitting on Rikers island that should not be there.” Asked if he saw his position on the jail as a weakness in comparison to his opponents, Lasak said, “Not at all.”
Lasak declined to specify which, if any, crimes his office would decline to prosecute. He told The Intercept that he plans generally to try to decrease the number of petty crimes the office charges but wants to review each case individually. Like Katz, Lasak wants to end cash bail only for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. “On violent felonies, I don’t think that’s the answer right now,” he said. “Another way to look at it would be to sit down with the legislature and come up with some plan on it.”
Activists are skeptical of Lasak’s popularity among law enforcement unions. With his career history, that support isn’t all that surprising. He’s been endorsed by the New York State Court Officers, the New York State Court Clerks Association, the New York State Supreme Court Officers Association, the Lieutenants Benevolent Association, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Police Benevolent Association, the Heat and Frost Insulators Local 12, the Asian American Congress, and Sheet Metal Workers Local 28.
Update: March 27, 2019
This story has been updated to include an additional endorsement for Greg Lasak, from Sheet Metal Workers Local 28. Also, the story has been updated to reflect that Color of Change PAC is considering, not planning, endorsements in the Queens district attorney race.
Correction: March 27, 2019
A previous version of this story misstated the source of some of Rory Lancman’s contributions. He will continue receiving money from prison employees, not the prison industry.