queens

After Primary That Veered Left, Dem Stalwart Katz Lands in Progressive Camp

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz speaks with THE CITY at the Tower Diner in Forest Hills, Sept. 3, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, a longtime politician and member of the Queens Democratic Party, says she’s preparing to be a progressive prosecutor.

She appears to be taking her cue from Tiffany Cabán, the public defender and upstart grassroots candidate who came out of nowhere to nearly beat her in the dramatic Democratic primary for Queens district attorney. Katz is considered a lock to win the November election in the heavily Democratic borough.

“I think that I have a very, very unique and amazing opportunity to reform an office in the best possible way that other DAs have throughout the country,” Katz said in an interview at Rego Park’s Tower Diner, where she ordered an egg cream.

“I also think that justice for victims does not mean you can’t have justice for defendants, there’s absolutely no reason you can’t have both.”

Her language echoed the campaign rhetoric of Cabán, who rode a progressive wave that began in Queens with last year’s upset victory by now Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a key backer.

Cabán also notched the endorsements of Boston’s Rachael Rollins and Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner — both progressive prosecutors elected within the last two years.

Learning From Others

Katz said she’s been speaking with criminal justice stakeholders, community members and defense attorneys. She’s also reviewing the successes and missteps of DAs hailed as progressive champions — a list that, for her, includes Krasner and Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez.

She said Krasner “had some issues” but has a “really great” vision. She said it “took a lot of guts” for him to direct his office to reduce the length of sentences offered in plea deals.

In his June campaign endorsement of Cabán, Krasner called the crowded Queens race yet another “where all the candidates on the Democratic side are using the P word.”

“It turns out they’re all ‘progressives,’” he scoffs in a quote on her website. “And they’re all progressive at least from the beginning of the campaign until the end. Well here’s the truth: Words are cheap. It is easy to say that you are what you have not shown yourself to be.”

Katz held a victory rally in Forest Hills on July 29, 2019.
Katz held a victory rally in Forest Hills on July 29, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Cabán, in a statement to THE CITY, also stressed that actions speak louder than words.

“What matters isn’t what you call yourself, it’s whether you are willing to support bold policies that will actually take on the mass incarceration crisis in our country,” she wrote Wednesday. “For starters, that means getting rid of cash bail, decriminalizing sex work, and ending the criminalization of poverty. I hope Melinda walks the walk, and fights for a truly decarceral [anti-jail] agenda in office.”

Rollins encouraged Katz to keep her campaign promises, even amid inevitable criticism. “I am hopeful that she will surround herself with people who understand what it means to impacted by the justice system,” she added.

‘This Is Life and Death’

During the race to succeed the late, longtime DA Richard Brown, Katz shifted her stances on cash bail and the controversial borough-based jail plan to replace Rikers Island.

Several of the other Democratic candidates also revised their positions on issues, like decriminalizing sex work.

Katz said her plans for the DA’s office include: declining to prosecute low-level marijuana arrests; establishing a conviction integrity unit; enforcing hate crime laws; boosting construction worksite accountability; and implementing discovery reform.

“This is not politics, this is life and death,” said Katz. “And this is a situation where we need to take it very seriously as to how we reform this office, and most importantly, we need to get it right the first time.”

She also said she hasn’t ruled out tapping the other Democratic DA candidates — Cabán, among them — for their expertise.

“We are looking at everyone. There’s no one that I would discount,” Katz said of whom she might take advice from, adding that she hasn’t spoken with Cabán since last month.

When Cabán conceded the Democratic primary race after losing the recount by 55 votes, she said she showed it was possible to run on a “boldly decarceral platform” — and that the movement she built had “transformed the conversation about criminal justice.”

Katz said she will re-interview the bulk of the DA office’s more than 500 employees, and is eyeing potential contenders to join her executive staff.

“I’m in this awkward spot where I can’t officially put together a transition team,” Katz said. “But there’s no doubt that I’m not waiting. I do believe that we need to be able to have an office on Jan. 1 that can abide by the new laws and that is somewhat reformed already as we move forward.”

Race Not Over Yet

Queens is so heavily Democratic that Katz is almost guaranteed to win the general election on Nov. 5, where she’ll face off against GOP candidate Joe Murray, a former cop turned defense attorney — but she’s not taking anything for granted.

“People are treating me as the district attorney-elect. And that’s great. But at the end of the day, from my perspective, I still have the general election,” said Katz.

She said she’s going to continue to campaign and “keep a steady hand.”

Looking back at her unexpected rocky journey so far, Katz said she wouldn’t have done anything differently.

“You knew what you got with me. I’ve been around a long time. There’s no surprises,” said Katz, a former City Council member. “I honestly think it’s important for people not to think that they can come into an area that they don’t know. And I think that, I would hope that this race sort of proved the idea.”

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