A criminal justice reformer running a bare-bones, grassroots campaign is building momentum to transform the Queens District Attorney’s office for the first time in close to 30 years. As Tiffany Cabán beefs up her push with help from the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has jumped in to back the queer Latina public defender running an anti-establishment campaign many have likened to Ocasio-Cortez’s own.
After the DSA backed Cabán earlier this month, Ocasio-Cortez — one of the group’s first federally elected officials — announced Wednesday that she, too, would be getting in behind the 31-year-old Queens native. The Democratic primary is set for June 25, a day before the one-year anniversary of Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory over Joe Crowley. With no Republican in the running so far, the top candidate will effectively win the DA’s seat.
“We deserve a district attorney that understands that to make our community safer we help people prosper.”
“Our criminal justice system needs to change. New Yorkers deserve a seat at the table, and a champion who will fight to realign our priorities towards equal treatment under the law,” said Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement. “If Tiffany Cabán wins, things are going to change. Instead of criminalizing poverty, we’re going to dedicate resources towards prosecuting abusive landlords. Instead of targeting people who use marijuana, we can go after the drug companies that took advantage of working-class folks for profit. We can end broken windows policing and rebuild the relationship between our communities, and the justice system that’s supposed to work for us. We can end cash bail, so that the rich and poor are held equal in the eyes of the law. We deserve a district attorney that understands that to make our community safer we help people prosper. We deserve Tiffany Cabán.”
With Ocasio-Cortez’s backing, Cabán has scored her first congressional endorsement. But Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, one of Cabán’s top opponents, has support from a wide swath of the Queens County Democratic machine, including Ocasio-Cortez’s predecessor and former Queens County Democratic Party chair, Crowley, as well as current New York Reps. Greg Meeks, Carolyn Maloney, and Tom Suozzi.
Cabán’s campaign is pretty far behind on the fundraising front and didn’t have to file a disclosure at the state’s last deadline because they’d raised under $1,000 that quarter. But her campaign says its strength comes from its overwhelming grassroots energy, bolstered in large part by organizers from the Queens DSA and the Working Families Party, among other groups, who plan to knock on “every last door,” Cabán communications director Monica Klein told The Intercept. Cabán has been able to galvanize a grassroots coalition to knock on doors and run a campaign on a shoestring budget — particularly for an office not many people even know they can vote for.
As progressive candidates and organizers are shaking up New York City politics with wins by Ocasio-Cortez, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and a slew of insurgent challengers who wiped out the renegade Independent Democratic Conference, or IDC, the Queens DA race is another push in the broader movement to wrest power from the city’s Democratic machine.
Even before it takes place, the Queens contest is already a win for the nation’s broader criminal justice reform movement that ushered in progressive prosecutors like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Rachael Rollins in Boston, and Wesley Bell in St. Louis, with each of the seven candidates in the field working to cast themselves as the most “progressive.”
The Queens DA race is another push in the broader movement to wrest power from the city’s Democratic machine.
Each contender has distanced themselves from the late Dick Brown, the borough’s last DA, and his office’s passive approach to criminal justice reform at a time when DAs across the country were making a central part of their projects to decline to prosecute low-level offenses and establish conviction review units. But as the petitioning period has passed and endorsements are being scooped up, much like the Ocasio-Cortez–Crowley primary, the Queens DA race is more clearly reflecting a split screen between the grassroot progressives and the monied New York Democratic establishment.
Cabán’s campaign is centered on healing community trauma, ending mass incarceration, diverting funds from the DA’s office back to communities, stopping the prosecution of minor offenses, and ending the construction of new jails. She’s represented over 1,000 clients as a public defender, and she says running to transform the DA’s office is the next natural step in her advocacy for her clients.
At 31, Cabán is the youngest candidate on the ballot. She currently has no health care because she took time off from her day job to run. And she’s deferred her student loans, her campaign told The Intercept.
Since the race’s petitioning period ended April 4, Cabán has been endorsed by the National DSA, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Our Revolution, People for Bernie, the sex workers group Red Canary, the New Visions Democratic Club, the National Association of Social Workers, the 504 Democratic Club, No IDC NY, the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, Rockaway Revolution, and the New Queens Democrats.
She’s also got backing from former New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon; New York State Sens. Jessica Ramos, Luis Sepúlveda, and Gustavo Rivera; New York City Councilmembers Brad Lander and Jimmy Van Bramer; and activists and attorneys such as Zephyr Teachout, Marc Fliedner, Linda Sarsour, Akeem Browder, and Allen Roskoff.
Cabán’s campaign has also attracted top-tier political staff, including campaign manager Luke Hayes, who worked on State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi’s campaign to challenge New York’s IDC; fundraising consultant Elana Leopold, who led fundraising efforts for Nixon, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Ramos, another IDC challenger; and communications director Monica Klein, who led the press team on de Blasio’s 2017 campaign and handled communications for Ramos and congressional candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley, and also helped lead the Working Families Party effort to break up the IDC.
Cabán’s top opponent at this point in the race is Katz, a career politician with no courtroom experience who’s run for at least six offices throughout New York. Despite her machine backing and questionable past positions on issues from the death penalty to cash bail, Katz has moved closer and closer to Cabán on a number of issues since The Intercept covered the race in March.
Cabán staked her campaign on ending the use of cash bail for all crimes, not just nonviolent felonies. She was also an early supporter of the city’s No New Jails movement and opposed de Blasio’s plan to replace the Rikers Island jail by constructing four new jails. Katz previously wanted to eliminate cash bail only for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies but has since altered her platform to end cash bail completely. She supports closing Rikers and, until recently, supported de Blasio’s plan to replace the massive jail with four new borough-based jails. She now opposes that plan.
While Cabán would decline to prosecute, among other crimes, sex work and recreational drug use, Katz said she would only decline to prosecute marijuana use and would want to “consider each arrest on its merits before declining to prosecute.”
In addition to distancing herself from policy proposals that fall short of the progressive standard Cabán is pushing, Katz has also tried to explain away her past support for conservative criminal justice measures. Katz said she only voted the death penalty while she was a member of the New York State Assembly on moral grounds after her mother was killed in a drunk driving accident. But during that race in 1994, where the Queens Daily News described her as a candidate “bucking the Queens Democratic machine,” Katz said she didn’t think the death penalty was a deterrent but that she supported it because of “the enormous cost of keeping someone behind bars for life.”
In her campaign for DA, Katz is also running on sentencing reform and reducing mass incarceration. But as a New York City council member, she sponsored legislation to increase penalties for minor offenses like graffiti and drag racing, and voted to create a new crime of gang recruitment despite expert testimony that such laws unfairly target young people of color who aren’t involved in crime.
Katz has raised over $1 million so far, and some of that includes funds left over from her citywide office accounts. She’s also taken a quarter of a million dollars from real estate developers and interests, while pledging to hold developers and construction companies accountable for workplace injuries. She’s the top real estate industry recipient in the race thus far, The City reported.
On Wednesday, Cabán will hold an event thanking sex workers who have canvassed on her behalf, her campaign told The Intercept.
“When sex workers and formerly incarcerated people get together behind a DA candidate, you know something’s happening,” Cabán said.
Also on the Queens DA ballot are New York City Council Member Rory Lancman; former deputy chief for special investigations in the New York state attorney general’s office Jose Nieves; former Washington, D.C., Deputy Attorney General Mina Malik; former prosecutor and retired New York Supreme Court Justice Greg Lasak; and New York City attorney Betty Lugo, a former Republican who has said as recently as this month that she may be open to running on a GOP ticket for the DA’s office.