One year ago, the Queens Democratic machine, which has controlled the politics of the borough in one form or another for decades, was stunned by the surprise loss of longtime party boss Joe Crowley to 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The borg quickly reformed itself. Crowley was subsequently reelected chair of the county party, became a powerhouse lobbyist, and his Brooklyn-based protege, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, eased into Crowley’s vacated leadership position in the House of Representatives.
The loss, party bosses concluded, could be weathered and was the result of getting taken by surprise — something they wouldn’t let happen again.
Queens is about to have its first competitive district attorney’s race in almost 30 years, and the machine is ready. The contest, set for June 25, bears some striking similarities to the Ocasio-Cortez/Crowley battle that fell on June 26 a year earlier.
A crowded field has been narrowed to two front-runners. On one side is 31-year-old queer Latina Tiffany Cabán, a former public defender running on an aggressively reformist agenda: end cash bail, stop criminalizing poverty, and broadly roll back mass incarceration and the war on drugs. She has the backing of the Working Families Party, Democratic Socialists of America, and a slew of community groups. She recently picked up the endorsement of Ocasio-Cortez, who has been pounding her email list and social media feed to raise small dollars for Cabán, and on Thursday she won the backing of radical Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner.
On the other side is the machine, in the form of Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, who has the backing of Crowley, the state’s elected officials, and the area’s major real estate developers. Cabán’s campaign ad, released on Friday, takes direct aim at Katz.
I’m a queer Latina from a working-class family. People like us are exactly who the system is trying to keep down.— Tiffany Cabán (@CabanForQueens) June 7, 2019
That’s why I became a public defender—and that’s why I’m running for Queens DA.
Watch our new ad and help us bring real justice to Queens: https://t.co/Av3yWryvUt pic.twitter.com/Xa8CZbgkQZ
Katz is a close Crowley ally. She campaigned for Crowley in the pivotal race that eventually saw Ocasio-Cortez unseat him from his 10-year reign representing New York’s 7th, and later the 14th, congressional district. Crowley heavily backed Katz’s 2013 campaign to become borough president, presided over her swearing-in the following year, and has personally backed her campaign for DA. Crowley’s campaign committee, Joe for New York, gave Katz $2,750 in May.
She also has support from much of New York’s congressional delegation, including current New York Reps. Greg Meeks, Carolyn Maloney, and Tom Suozzi. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is planning to hold a fundraiser for Katz on June 10, effectively throwing in his endorsement, the New York Post reported Monday. (He called her “Melissa” in an interview the next day with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer.) Cuomo also backed Katz’s bid for borough president in 2013.
Katz is running as a progressive who’ll advance criminal justice reforms, but she’s shifted her position on a number of related issues over the course of her DA campaign. She initially supported New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to build four new borough-based jails and close Rikers Island, but since March, she’s come out against the plan. Katz similarly campaigned on ending cash bail only for misdemeanors and violent felonies but now wants to end cash bail for all crimes. She has said she’d decline to prosecute low-level marijuana offenses, but while several of her opponents have designated a list of other crimes they’d decline to prosecute — including all recreational drug use and fare evasion — Katz said in response to a January DSA questionnaire that she still wants to “consider each arrest on its merits before declining to prosecute.” Reached for comment, Grant Fox, a spokesperson for the Katz campaign, said she’s always been completely opposed to cash bail and that she would also decline to prosecute sex work. She also supports a bill in the Assembly that would allow inmates over 55 who have served at least 15 years of their sentence to be eligible for parole, Fox said.
“Melinda has always been consistent in her complete opposition to cash bail,” said Fox. “And she has always stood against the city’s process for closing Rikers and building massive new jails in four Boroughs. She’s sent multiple letters to the city opposing their process, and partnered with Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. in opposing the city’s plan. Her position is clear: she does not support building a massive 1,500-person jail anywhere in Queens. In fact, she’s the only one backing a real solution to close Rikers and bring inmates closer to their communities in smaller Borough-based jails. Others in the race are backing ridiculous proposals to either rebuild Rikers or close it without any plans for what to do with the current population.”
Katz has run for at least six different elected offices in New York over the past 25 years.
Katz has run for at least six different elected offices in New York over the past 25 years. In between her roles as New York City Council member and Queens borough president, she lobbied for real estate clients at Greenberg Traurig. The law firm’s political action committee donated $1,000 to her 2013 campaign, and she received at least 36 individual donations from Greenberg Traurig employees.
Katz opened up a new citywide campaign committee last January, Katz 2021, as rumors floated that she was contemplating a mayoral run. Katz said she wanted “to explore how I can serve the city I love long after my tenure as Borough President has ended.” Crowley hosted a fundraiser for her that February where donors could be her “Cupid” or “Valentine,” or buy her a “Rose,” with respective contributions of $4,950, $2,500, or $1,000, Queens County Politics reported.
When Katz was running for New York State Assembly in 1994, the Daily News described her candidacy as “bucking the Queens Democratic Machine with a mini-machine of her own.” She positioned herself as something of an insurgent for the time, running on fighting for tenants’ rights and prosecuting organized crime. She also touted her stance against granting parole for Robert Chambers, who killed Jennifer Levin in Central Park in 1986. “We’re no longer going to accept representation solely as political reward and as patronage,” she told the Daily News. She’s since cozied up to Crowley and other mentors, making inroads with the monied New York interests that have helped her raise close to $1 million so far in her campaign for DA.
As Katz moved through the New York political scene, from the state Assembly to City Council to borough president, she morphed into part of the very machine she started out running against.
When she first ran, Katz was a staunch supporter of the death penalty. When she and Crowley served together in the Assembly, they both approved a 1994 death penalty measure to override a veto from then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, Andrew Cuomo’s father. Both voted again in support of the death penalty in 1995, when seven black assembly members, including then-assemblyman Greg Meeks, voted against the measure, citing its disproportionate impact on the black community. Katz now opposes the death penalty and has acknowledged its disparate effects on communities of color.
But even as Katz flipped on the death penalty, she pushed forward other measures that would increase incarceration and lengthen sentences for a variety of misdemeanor offenses.
As a City Council member from 2002 to 2009, Katz sponsored legislation to increase penalties for minor offenses like graffiti and drag racing. She voted to create a new crime of gang recruitment, while experts testified that such laws indiscriminately target innocent young people of color.
In 2002, she co-sponsored a City Council resolution that sought to continue the city’s funding for police salaries under the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. The COPS Office was established as part of the 1994 crime bill, which is now widely understood to have played a role in driving up the incarcerated population in the U.S. The program was designed to “increase police presence, to expand and improve cooperative efforts between law enforcement agencies and members of the community to address crime and disorder problems, and otherwise to enhance public safety.”
She’s been tone deaf at times too, suggesting a disconnect from the movement energizing criminal justice reform. After the 2015 shooting that killed three Muslim students near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus, Katz posted on Facebook: “Prayers for the families and friends of #ChapelHillShooting victims. #AllLivesMatter.”
In 2018, Katz’s borough president campaign accepted $16,565 from Constantinople & Vallone consulting and its employees; the firm represents the private prison operator GEO Group. Asked for comment, Katz’s spokesperson Fox said Katz “opposes private prisons, period. Singling her out for taking money from Constantinople & Vallone is disingenuous when Rory Lancman has taken money from them and Tiffany Cabán has been happy to accept endorsements from Senator Ramos and Assemblyman Quart who took their money as well.” Hannah Jeffrey, a spokesperson for Lancman, asked if Fox was referring to a $250 contribution from Anthony Constantinople in 2018.
“Since Melinda Katz has no courtroom experience, we understand why she’s failing to make a coherent argument. The facts remain: Tiffany Cabán is running against the powerful real estate interests that have bankrolled Katz throughout her career,” Monica Klein, spokesperson for the Cabán campaign, said in a statement.
Katz’s connections to the real estate industry have bolstered her numerous campaigns, and she’s collected at least $158,300 this cycle from real estate industry donors, The City reported. During her 2009 run for city comptroller, the New York Times editorial board endorsed former City Council member David Yassky (who now directs state policy for Cuomo); the board wrote that while “Katz has been a smart, dynamic leader of the Land Use Committee,” they were “less enthusiastic about her connections to the real estate community.”
In a city like New York where residents are in the throes of a massive affordability crisis, progressives are concerned that the Democratic machine is pushing someone with such close ties to the real estate industry. Cabán is the only candidate in the DA race who’s outright rejected both real estate and corporate PAC money, following the lead of other New York politicians including Ocasio-Cortez, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.
“She’s been in politics her whole life, and she’s raised more money than anybody else — much of it from real estate and other donors who progressives should have concerns about,” Bill Lipton, co-founder of the Working Families Party, told The Intercept. “People are wondering whether there’s gonna be working-class people living here at all 10 to 20 years from now, if not sooner,” he said. “Every elected official likes to say that they’re gonna fight for the community.” Not taking real estate and corporate PAC money “is a litmus test that demonstrates that you’re authentic and serious about it. It’s a new kind of politics that Bernie Sanders’s campaign demonstrated the viability for: of grassroots contributions powering insurgent campaigns that authentically want to represent working-class, middle-class and poor families.”
As chair of the City Council’s Land Use Committee, Katz received contributions from developers and real estate moguls with business before the committee. Between 2006 and 2008, members of the Willets Point Industry and Realty Association, a coalition of area business owners, gave $45,000 to Katz’s City Council campaign, the New York Times reported. In 2008, while chairing the Land Use Committee, Katz helped approve a Willets Point redevelopment project, which included allocating 800 homes for families making less than $38,400 a year. Employees of the project developers, Tully Construction and Tully Environmental, have given at least $12,130 to Katz between 2006 and 2018.
In 2007, Katz sponsored legislation to allow the installation of billboards on scaffolding and sidewalk sheds. She received at least $80,000 from billboard companies, including Van Wagner Communications, in her 2009 comptroller campaign, the New York Daily News reported.
As borough president, Katz also supported a largely unpopular rezoning plan to build a housing unit and a Target center in Queens, a project Ocasio-Cortez opposed for its lack of affordable units. Yeheskel Elias, CEO of the Heskel Group, the plan’s developer, contributed $3,850 to Katz.
Asked about Katz’s ties to real estate, Fox said she’s been an advocate for residents against industry interests. “Melinda has an unbeatable record of standing up to powerful interests at every level of government that she’s served in and winning fights on behalf of the people she represents. On the City Council she changed the culture of the Land Use Committee that she chaired and cost developers millions of dollars when she fought for fair wages and safe work sites at new developments. As Borough President, she’s taken on real estate interests and opposed developments from Astoria to Jamaica that didn’t have enough affordable housing or weren’t using union labor.”
Strategists and organizers close to the race say they’re still expecting low turnout given the lack of knowledge around the DA’s office and the voting behaviors of the Queens electorate. But with Cabán’s most recent fundraising haul and endorsements from Ocasio-Cortez and Krasner, strategists say the establishment is taking note. “The machine is nervous,” said Klein.