queens da race

Tiffany Cabán Edging Melinda Katz in Close Queens DA Primary

Tiffany Cabán addresses supporters at La Boom restaurant in Woodside, Queens, on June 25, 2019.
Tiffany Cabán addresses supporters at La Boom restaurant in Woodside, Queens, on June 25, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The Queens Machine may need a reboot.

Insurgent Tiffany Cabán was leading Melinda Katz in the Democratic primary for Queens district attorney late Tuesday night, upsetting the political establishment and extending the power of the borough’s progressive movement.

If her razor-thin margin of victory holds, the 31-year-old public defender’s win over the Queens Democratic Party would echo that of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning election to Congress last year — dealing another body blow to a once-dominant political machine.

Cabán was ahead by just over 1,000 votes with about 3,000 absentee and paper ballots yet to be counted — a process that will take at least a week, NY1 reported.

Still, at the Cabán would-be victory party at La Boom in Woodside, chants of “Si se puede!” (Yes we can!) and “People power!” resounded.

“You know when we started this thing, they said I was too young,” she told her supporters just after 11 p.m. “They said I didn’t look like a district attorney. They said we could not build a movement from the grass roots. They said we could not win. But we did it y’all!”

Katz, the Queens borough president, was an early frontrunner in the race to replace the late, longtime DA Richard Brown. She snagged the backing of the party establishment and many prominent unions, and enjoyed a major fundraising advantage.

Greg Lasak, a former judge with strong support from law enforcement and many in the legal profession, rounded out the top three vote-getters in a whittled-down field of six.

Addressing her supporters after the polls closed, Katz said, “We always knew this was going to be tough folks, because if it wasn’t tough it wouldn’t be a race.” She used the word “recount,” but it was unclear whether she could get one.

“We are doing a recount and God willing, I’ll come out on top,” she said.

Small Turnout on a Big Day

A major factor in the mathematics of the race proved to be the eleventh-hour withdrawal of City Councilmember Rory Lancman, who pulled out last week and backed Katz. His name remained on the ballot, however, and he garnered more than 1,000 votes.

With only about 80,000 of 760,000 active Democratic voters in the county casting ballots, initial results showed voter turnout in the first competitive district attorney’s race in Queens in generations was relatively low, dampened by pounding morning rain.

On Tuesday morning at P.S. 239 in Ridgewood, multiple voters said that while they hadn’t heard from most of the candidates, they’d received Cabán mailers or met people canvassing for her.

Victor Cruz, 82, who owns a boxing gym, said that he’d only found out about Cabán “not too long ago,” thanks to a mailer.

“I don’t know too much about the DA,” Cruz said. “I vote every year… I just vote for my Spanish people, I support my people.”

Across the borough, THE CITY was hard pressed to find voters who were not going for Caban or Katz.

Bill Baker, 51, a longtime resident of southeastern Queens, voted for Katz.

Greg Lasak addresses supporters in Bayside, Queens, on June 25, 2019.
Greg Lasak addresses supporters in Bayside, Queens, on June 25, 2019. Photo: Gabriel Sandoval/THE CITY

“She has been in the community for a while,” said Baker, who cast his ballot at Richard Grossley Junior High in Jamaica. “I would have voted for Lancman, but what happened? That was another reason I voted for Katz. “

At a viewing party for Lasak at the Bourbon Street restaurant on Bell Boulevard in Bayside, Michael Contino said he was “impressed” by the former judge.

But, Contino added, “I couldn’t vote because I’m a registered Republican.”

A Generational Shift

The DA’s race kicked into high gear in January, when Brown announced that he would not seek reelection, after serving for nearly three decades.

He died last month at age 86, following a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

Brown was known for tough-on-crime policies that critics say contributed to the mass incarceration of far too many people of color.

Queens is the sole borough without a conviction integrity unit, leads the city in prosecuting the most low-level marijuana offenses and in putting people in jail for misdemeanors.

The crowd at La Boom in Woodside cheer before Queens district attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán takes the stage on election night Tuesday. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Cabán officially entered the race weeks after Brown’s retirement announcement.

In the subsequent months, Cabán’s campaign grew at a dizzying speed, expanding from just a few volunteer staffers to what she calls a “people-powered” movement that attracted hundreds of volunteers. She also drew high-profile endorsements from the likes of Ocasio-Cortez, Cynthia Nixon, and Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner.

But by relying on individual contributions and rejecting money from real estate interests, she’s raised hundreds of thousands less than some of the other candidates. Her contributions weren’t exclusive to Queens or even the city.

She notched help from outside donors as far flung as California. One of her largest contributions was a $35,000 donation from Patty Quillin, the wife of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.

Among all the candidates, Cabán has gone the furthest left in her platform, calling for a radical transformation of the DA’s office. She said she wants to decarcerate Queens, and reshape the role of a prosecutor to be more like a public defender.

“The DA measures success right now in terms of convictions and sentences when incentivizes going after this really low hanging fruit,” Cabán previously told THE CITY. “When it comes to reform, it is actually what public defenders fight to do every single day. Those metrics of success being to decarcerate, to reduce recidivism, and apply the law fairly across racial and class lines.”

Melinda Katz addresses supporters at her viewing party in Forest Hills, Queens, on June 25, 2019
Melinda Katz addresses supporters at her viewing party in Forest Hills, Queens, on June 25, 2019 Photo: Josefa Velasquez/THE CITY

Cabán has said she’ll be a different kind of district attorney, one modeled off of progressive ideals focused on keeping people both away from the legal system and out of jail.

She plans to end cash bail across the board, beyond the state’s new law, which will go into effect in January, eliminating cash bail for most misdemeanors and low-level felonies. She wants shorter sentences for felonies.

Cabán said she’ll decline to prosecute all sex work-related charges, fare evasion, low-level marijuana possession, trespassing, disorderly conduct, loitering, drug posession and welfare fraud. She will create units to review past convictions, go after wage theft, and aid survivors of violence and crime. While she supports the closure of Rikers Island, she’s opposed to building new jails.

Critics question whether these reforms will come at the expense of the borough’s current low levels of crime.

At the PS 122 polling site in Astoria, Oscar Klausner, 25, said he’s been “pretty tuned into the DA’s race for the last couple of weeks because he teaches art to jail inmates.

“We put way too many people in jail, and it needs to change drastically so I voted for Tiffany Cabán,” he said.

Lack of Experience Cited

Throughout the race, Cabán was roundly criticized for her lack of prosecutorial and management experience. She counters that she’s been on the front lines of criminal justice reform, representing more than one thousand clients as a public defender in Manhattan. She also emphasizes how she’s created a movement from scratch, in just a few months.

“Women like me are not supposed to be on stages like this,” Cabán said at a recent NY1 forum. “I have built something from nothing and that shows my ability to change that office and lead that office.”

The race is not over. Whomever wins the Democratic primary will next face off with GOP candidate Daniel Kogan, an Ozone Park-based attorney, in the Nov. 5 general election.

Kogan, who does not yet have a campaign platform or website, told THE CITY last week he didn’t anticipate “taking an overly active campaign.”

“I don’t expect it [a win] given the history of Queens County and the enrollment,” Kogan said. “I don’t expect to launch a vigorous campaign.”

Nearly 65 percent of Queens’ active voter base is Democratic. As of the last available state Board of Elections data, there are about 128,000 active registered Republicans.

If Cabán wins the primary and the Nov. 5 election, she’ll be the first woman to serve as the Queens DA and the city’s youngest top prosecutor.

Sign up for “THE CITY Scoop,” our daily newsletter where we send you stories like this first thing in the morning.

Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.