WASHINGTON — Last night, New York City residents appear to have elected Tiffany Cabán, another addition to the growing slate of left-leaning newcomers, over an establishment-backed Democrat. As the progressive wave targets political stalwarts, activists are already turning their focus to another longtime establishment Democrat in the city: Rep. Gregory Meeks.
Meeks is rumored to face opposition in 2020 after representing the Queens district for more than two decades, in part because the long-standing Democrat endorsed Cabán’s opponent, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz for district attorney in Tuesday night’s election. When his colleagues, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, backed Cabán, Meeks criticized the two presidential candidates and implied that they were going against the will of local black voters in endorsing the progressive candidate over Katz.
But after Cabán claimed victory Tuesday night ahead of her opponent by 1,090 votes, progressives turned their attention to Meeks. As a local Democratic political operative texted BuzzFeed News just before midnight last night, “Meeks [is] done[.]”
Operatives aren’t alone in foretelling the future of the long-standing member of Congress. Brand New Congress, a progressive group that helped elect Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, also has their eyes on Meeks’s seat.
Brand New Congress plans to run candidates throughout New York City — in the 9th, 12th, 15th, 16th, and 26th districts — and, yes, Meeks’s 5th District, which encompasses parts of Queens and a sliver of Long Island.
“We have received a nomination and we’re talking to a very interesting and charismatic individual in that district that may be looking to challenge Meeks,” Zeynab Day, communications director for Brand New Congress, said. Day would not reveal the name of said candidate.
Justice Democrats, another group that elevated Ocasio-Cortez, also criticized Meeks, though the group said that it is not currently backing a challenger in his race. “People are disappointed in his leadership, especially with new leaders emerging like AOC and Cabán in Queens,” Alexandra Rojas, the group’s executive director, said.
RootsAction, an online group dedicated to “galvanizing people who are committed to economic fairness,” this week named Meeks as one of the 15 members of Congress who should be primaried. The report, titled “Bad Blues: Some of the House Democrats Who Deserve to Be Primaried,” calls attention to several articles that criticize Meeks, including a New York Times piece that alleges the representative “lives the life worthy of a jetsetter.” The RootsAction list also included Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, and New York Rep. Eliot Engel, who is currently facing two primary opponents in his Bronx district.
Meeks defended himself in an interview with BuzzFeed News Wednesday evening, saying he welcomes other Democrats to run against him. “I would challenge anyone to just come look and see the work that we’ve done since I’ve been here. And if an individual so chooses to run, tell them to come on, bring it on, I’ll be there,” he said.
Meeks pointed out that voters in his district “overwhelmingly” voted for Katz on Tuesday. “And they overwhelmingly, you know, year after year, voted for me because I speak for them and for their values,” Meeks said, pointing out that moderates also came out to vote for Gregory Lasak, another candidate in the DA race Tuesday, who secured 14% of the vote overall. “In essence, in Queens there are more moderates than there are progressives, particularly those progressives that are of the socialist bend,” Meeks said.
Meeks’s vulnerability comes as Queens evolves into a progressive haven. Last June, Ocasio-Cortez knocked Rep. Joe Crowley, a member of House leadership, out of his seat. Crowley, a 10-term representative, served as the Democratic Caucus chair and held his congressional seat for more than two decades. Three months later, another progressive, Jessica Ramos, upset the late José Peralta in a state senatorial race. But the progressive wave spans throughout the entire city as more Democratic incumbents face primaries, mostly from progressive first-time candidates with no political ties.
Meeks sits at the helm of the Queens County Democrats. The multiterm member of Congress stepped into the top Democrat position after Crowley lost to Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, a moment many peg as the onset of the county’s latest progressive trend. Ocasio-Cortez, a freshman, endorsed Cabán for district attorney, flexing her political muscle for the first time since her own shattering win.
Cabán, a progressive public defender whose criminal justice platform includes decriminalizing sex work, falls in line with the ongoing progressive trajectory. The district attorney’s race is still in motion, however. Katz refused to concede the close race, and will wait for the Board of Elections to count the more than 3,000 paper ballots.
“[Meeks] has $710,000 in corporate funds, almost all of his campaign finance is from corporate PACs,” Day of Brand New Congress said. “Voters are shifting away from that, folks in general, I think, across the board and across parties are tired of the corruption. They are really fed up with career politicians who really haven’t moved a lot of legislation.”
Meeks pushed back, saying, “There’s money in this political game both ways. I noticed how there were several hedge funds, for example, the wife of the owner of Netflix [donated to Cabán]. So you’re saying if you take money to [a] hedge fund, you’re completely beholden to hedge funds? I hold corporations and others as accountable — if you look at my record — as anyone else.”
This story was updated with additional comment from Justice Democrats.