Endorsements Pouring in for Insurgent Queens DA Candidate

Within 24 hours, Tiffany Cabán earned endorsements from the New York Times and leading presidential candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Tiffany Cab·n, who is running for district attorney in Queens, May 22, 2019. Cab·n, who was recently endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is the latest in a new wave of public defenders running for district attorney, and hoping to reform the system from within.  (Gabriella Angotti-Jones/The New York Times)
Tiffany Cabán, who is running in the Democratic primary for Queens district attorney, on May 22, 2019. Photo: Gabriella Angotti-Jones/The New York Times via Redux

In the span of a few hours, Tiffany Cabán pulled in endorsements from across the Democratic political spectrum, beginning with the shock backing of the New York Times on Tuesday night. That was followed Wednesday by public support from top progressive 2020 presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, sparking a brief tussle over who was following whom in jumping into the Queens district attorney race.

To put an exclamation mark on just how ideologically wide Cabán’s support now runs, she sat down the day after her Times endorsement to tape an interview with Chapo Trap House, the house podcast organ of the so-called dirtbag left.

Cabán is running on a sweeping reform platform, pledging not to prosecute minor drug crimes or offenses related to sex work, to end cash bail for all offenses, to revisit old sentences, and, broadly, to end prosecutions of offenses related to poverty. Her machine-backed opponent, Melinda Katz, is largely supported by real estate interests. The June 25 election comes almost a year to the day after the primary contest between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Joe Crowley in a congressional district that encompasses part of Queens. It is something of a rematch, too; Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed Cabán, while Crowley, nicknamed the King of Queens, is supporting Katz

A public defender, Cabán is running in the image of Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner and has been endorsed by him as well as Real Justice PAC, the group that helped orchestrate Krasner’s rise. She’s part of a wave of public defenders rethinking the value of defense work and instead fighting to take over the power of the prosecutor. She also has the backing of the Working Families Party, Democratic Socialists of America, and a slew of local community groups.

District attorneys wield enormous power within the criminal justice system, by virtue of their ability to choose where to deploy resources; what offense to charge, how many charges to stack, or whether to charge at all; and what sentences to recommend. The new approach to criminal justice reform has a simple strategy: Take that power.

The New York Times endorsement of Cabán was unsurprisingly muted. “The choice is difficult. The field of candidates is big but disappointing. Tiffany Cabán, a 31-year-old public defender, is the best pick,” sang the Times, if not in particularly ringing terms. No matter: The fact of the endorsement will soon be arriving in mailboxes throughout Queens, helping shore up support from normie voters who might otherwise be skeptical of what appears to be such a radical platform.

The Times played a role in Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, too. While the paper was pilloried for never once running a standalone story on the primary, the editorial board did chime in with a scathing attack on Crowley for skipping a debate against Ocasio-Cortez. That may have triggered a sizable number of votes that Queens and Bronx residents thought they were only casting in protest.

While Ocasio-Cortez’s win this time last year seemed to come from nowhere, expectations will be higher for Cabán, as people began to pay attention to her campaign much earlier on. In March, Warren held an event in Long Island City and met with Cabán beforehand, a Warren spokesperson said. Their staffs have been in touch since.

On Wednesday, Warren pulled the trigger on the endorsement. 

Meanwhile, Sanders had already agreed to endorse Cabán, but the campaign wanted to give the news exclusively to NY1, a dominant local channel, which meant that Warren’s endorsement popped first. That led to an explanation from Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir.

That the progressive wing’s two leading candidates for president are fighting for credit over their endorsement of Cabán signals a dramatic shift in the politics of insurgency and criminal justice reform.

Update: June 19, 2019

Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., a supporter of Katz, who is white, lashed out Warren and Sanders for the endorsement, saying that the lack of consultation with elected leaders disrespected African Americans. “Warren and Sanders saw fit to endorse without even considering what African Americans thought,” Meeks said, calling the intervention “patronizing” and “arrogant.”

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