rocky road

Public Defender’s Bumpy Insurgent Campaign to Become Queens’ Next DA

Tiffany Cabán had a rocky start to her campaign to be Queens' next district attorney.
Tiffany Cabán had a rocky start to her campaign to be Queens’ next district attorney. Photo: Caban for Queens/Facebook

Tiffany Cabán’s long-shot bid to become Queens’ next district attorney, on its third campaign leadership team in less than four months, has been marked by infighting and disarray, according to former staffers.

Now veteran advisors are guiding the final stretch leading to the June 25 primary as the 31-year-old public defender vies to replicate the success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive Democrats elsewhere in the state.

Cabán said she entered the crowded race to succeed longtime District Attorney Richard Brown, who died Friday, to “agitate the discussion and hold people’s feet to the fire.”

But when the campaign picked up momentum — with a flurry of volunteer support and endorsements from grassroots groups like Real Justice PAC — it “quickly transitioned,” she said, from just pushing the race to the left to a run she believed she could win.

“I never thought I would be doing this,” Cabán told THE CITY. “I think it’s a combination of lightning in a bottle.”

But former campaign workers say that progressive ideas on how to reform the district attorney’s office slammed head-on into the realities of running a political campaign amid a crowded field that includes Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and Councilmember Rory Lancman.

“In situations like this, where you have insurgent candidates, you end up with people who are behind and who are bit newer to politics who want to do something new and exciting,” a former Cabán campaign worker told THE CITY on the condition of anonymity so they could speak freely.

“The problem is those people very rarely have the institutional knowledge to understand the system that they’re going up against.”

‘A Perfect Storm’

In January, Cabán enlisted her first campaign managers: Martha Ayon and Virginia Ramos Rios, both of whom had worked on several local campaigns. Ramos Rios ran now-Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’ primary upset of Joe Crowley in Queens, which sent shockwaves through city, state and national politics.

By April, however, the campaign replaced Ayon and Ramos Rios with a new set of managers, one of whom had volunteered for Ocasio-Cortez’s team and the other who had worked on Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s campaign.

Ramos Rios said she is still working as an advisor to the Cában campaign and that she left the leadership role because “there are things going on in my life that meant I cannot be part of the day to day management.”

Ayon, who’s currently working on the campaign for City Council candidate Jovia Radix, told THE CITY Tuesday that she left the Cabán campaign because she hadn’t been paid for her work. She said she still hopes to be paid.

Another former Cabán staffer, who did not want to be publicly identified, said they also haven’t been paid yet for their two months of work on the campaign.

“I left because they didn’t seem to have a sense of urgency to pay folks,” said Cristina González, a former Caban campaign communications employee who had worked on a pro-bono basis.

Cában spokesperson Monica Klein responded: “Every current and former employee has been paid to date, unless they’ve refused to answer the campaign’s multiple attempts to contact and pay them.”

In interviews with THE CITY, several former Cabán for DA workers said the campaign had been marked from the start by mismanagement, lack of communication and structure. Staffers said the chain of command was unclear, leading to confusion over who was calling the shots.

“I have never seen campaign mismanagement like this ever… The real problem here was that there was no preparation,” one former staffer said. “If she decided to run before December, there was no indication of that.”

Former employees say there were questions over the Cabán campaign’s fundraising ability.

“There was just stress about money in the bank, but I didn’t see any concerted effort to fundraise,” another ex-staffer said.

All seven candidates in the Queens district attorney's race at an April 30 forum in Jackson Heights.
All seven candidates in the Queens district attorney’s race at an April 30 forum in Jackson Heights. Photo: Christine Chung/THE CITY

In January, Cabán indicated to the state Board of Elections she had less than $1,000 in her campaign coffers. That’s a far cry from the million and change touted by each of the race’s top three fundraisers: Lancman, Katz and Supreme County Justice Gregory Lasak.

The next round of financial disclosures in the seven-candidate contest is set for later this month.

The Cabán campaign made at least one attempt to score big, with a $500-a-plate fundraiser scheduled for late March. A donor pledged to get celebrities like John Legend and Chelsea Clinton to attend, according to multiple former staffers. The day before the event was slated to take place, it was mysteriously canceled, the former staffers said.

The event was talked about as “part of our salvation,” an ex-staffer said.

“It just became a perfect storm of this organization, and it sucks because everyone working on that is very-well meaning,” said another former Cabán staffer.

Responding to the allegations of mismanagement, Cabán spokesperson Monica Klein told THE CITY, “The fact that these sources are too embarrassed to reveal their names says all you need to know about the veracity of their claims.”

A Little Outside Help

Last month, she hired yet another campaign manager, Luke Hayes, who helped run now-State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi’s insurgent campaign in The Bronx last year. She also recruited as her communications advisor Klein, a former spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio who was involved in successful primary challenges last year to Democratic state senators.

Hayes joined the campaign via the recommendation of the Working Families Party, which has committed to helping Cabán.

With seven weeks remaining before the primary, Cabán says she believes the race is between her and Katz, who is backed by the Queens County Democratic Party.

“What we find is that when you have something really powerful, something that a lot of people believe in and can get behind, it will drive people out,” Cabán said.

This story has been updated to add comment from former campaign managers and the campaign.

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