Almost exactly a year after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez challenged the Queens Democratic Party machine and unseated then-representative Joe Crowley, another progressive Latina candidate, Tiffany Cabán, is looking to upset the New York City political establishment in the Queens district attorney race.
This time, the county machine won’t be caught unprepared: In the final hours ahead of Tuesday’s election, the establishment is fighting back hard to push Melinda Katz, the Queens borough president, to victory.
“The corrupt Queens political machine doesn’t want me to win,” Cabán says in one campaign ad. “Because they get rich off foreclosures. They’ve taken millions from developers and I can’t be bought and controlled. That’s why they’re going all-in to elect Melinda Katz.”
Since Katz jumped into the race, she’s received endorsements from establishment Democrats like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was scheduled to headline a fundraiser for her campaign. She’s also received an endorsement from Rep. Gregory Meeks, who replaced Crowley as the Queens Democratic Party chair.
“Establishment, progressive. This is all terms of the current political frenzy, I know Melissa, she is a different type of politician, she is gutsy, she is tough, she gets things done,” Cuomo said in a WNYC interview earlier this month, accidentally misstating Katz’s name.
Katz has consistently led in fundraising among the crowded field. In the final hours of the race, Katz has received a flush of donations, including from the Real Estate Board of New York and from ex-member of Congress Joe Crowley’s campaign committee. Crowley has also sent out fundraising appeals on her behalf.
On Friday, New York City Council member Rory Lancman — who was running as a progressive in the DA race — dropped out and endorsed Katz, saying “the numbers” weren’t there for him to win.
“There are only two criminal justice reformers in this race, and that is me and Miss Cabán,” Lancman said at a previous candidate forum before dropping out and endorsing Katz — whom he’d consistently attacked during his time in the race for her ties to the party establishment. A top council staffer to Lancman quit after the endorsement, saying the endorsement “represents the antithesis of everything we have stood for in our government work and throughout your campaign.”
Cabán, a 31-year-old former public defender, is running on a platform of decriminalizing sex work, ending cash bail, prosecuting ICE agents who overstep their authority, decriminalizing marijuana, prosecuting landlords, and pledging to end civil asset forfeiture. If she’s elected, she would join a host of other reform-minded district attorneys who’ve been elected across the country.
A cadre of progressive organizations and leaders have coalesced behind her campaign, including the Working Families Party, Democratic Socialists of America, Ocasio-Cortez, and former Delaware Senate candidate Kerri Evelyn Harris. Presidential candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have also jumped into the local race to endorse Cabán.
Despite all of the parallels with the 2018 primary between Ocasio-Cortez and Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District, including a significant fundraising gap, this race presents its own challenges for Cabán and advantages for the establishment. Instead of the sliver of Queens and the Bronx that Ocasio-Cortez ran in, Cabán is running across all of Queens County, with areas of moderate voters that could present more of a challenge.
New York Working Families Party president Bill Lipton told BuzzFeed News that the race has been an uphill battle, but the endorsement and backing from key progressive organizations has helped raise Cabán’s profile and has brought volunteers into the community to help her campaign door-knock ahead of Tuesday. Over the weekend, progressives like Harris and Ocasio-Cortez held a rally for Cabán and helped staff with door-knocking and phone-banking shifts.
“This is still a real race,” George Arzt, a New York political consultant who worked on Katz’s borough president campaign in 2013. “It’s between Cabán and Katz, and you can tell that the Queens party is not taking this one for granted. They learned their lesson last year with Ocasio-Cortez and they’re not making those same mistakes by not showing up to debates or talking with the community. But this is still a real race, and it’s going to come down to who can inspire more people to come out in areas like southeast Queens.”