After losing the Queens district attorney primary race in a recount by a minuscule margin, Tiffany Cabán delivered one of the more defiant concession speeches in recent memory.
“Trust me, we terrified the Democratic establishment,” Cabán said Tuesday night in the backyard of a chic Astoria pub as she formally conceded the race to her top rival, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz.
The contrast was stark between the night of June 25, when she appeared to have won the primary, and her concession some six weeks later: This time around, a nightclub was swapped for a bar; a microphone buzzed with feedback; there were no bombastic speeches from tailcoat-riding politicians; and, inevitably, hundreds fewer people showed up.
“We showed you can run on a boldly decarceral platform—that you don’t have to compromise your values, that you don’t give into fearmongering, that you don’t have to play by the old rules, that you don’t have to take corporate or real estate money,” she went on.
Cabán, a Latina public defender who recently turned 32, read from prepared remarks, asserting that her democratic socialist campaign forced Katz to take on, or at least reckon with, political positions that she was once less willing to embrace. She never mentioned Katz by name or congratulated her publicly.
“We forced the next district attorney to commit to ending all cash bail,” Cabán said. “We pushed for the decriminalization of sex work and we pushed it all the way into the presidential campaign.”
Few candidates in any election anywhere have had such an immediate and surprising impact as Cabán. She was a fledgling public defender with no reputation and even less cash when she kicked off her bid in January, months after several better-known candidates entered the race.
Before long, she won backing from the Democratic Socialists of America, the Working Families Party, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, while the local Queens Democratic establishment, along with the city’s major labor unions, stuck firmly with Melinda Katz, a longtime elected official who appeared to be on a glide path to the nomination. Governor Andrew Cuomo quietly lent support, too.
On June 25, primary night, Cabán led Katz by more than 1,100 votes in the bitter seven-way contest. But Katz then made up the deficit when absentee votes were tallied, and led again by just 55 votes after a recount was triggered.
The margin by which Katz won—55 out of more than 90,000 ballots cast—was absurdly small. After a last-ditch and highly expensive legal challenge in which Cabán’s team argued that certain affidavit ballots had been unfairly discarded, Katz’s lead held and it became clear, as the afternoon hours ticked away on Tuesday, that the insurgent campaign was out of options.
Up close, it was painful for Caban’s supporters to reckon with the fact that the fates of thousands of current and future incarcerated people would be determined by the votes of such a tiny fraction of the Queens population. Katz, who needs to overcome only token GOP opposition in November, is going to be running one of the largest district attorney offices in America. She will hold an inordinate amount of power, and Cabán understands exactly what she came so achingly close to achieving.
Seen from afar, though, New York’s political scene will not be significantly altered by this outcome. The DSA remains ascendant; county organizations are on the wane; and 2020 and 2021 will witness a boom of insurgent campaigns in the Cabán and Ocasio-Cortez mold. The city council, particularly in Queens, is likely to shift further to the left.
What’s more, Katz’s campaign was relatively progressive—at least, by recent New York standards. As Cabán said, Katz eventually evolved to embrace ending cash bail completely, going further than legislation passed in Albany this year. She spoke out against ICE’s patrolling the courthouses, backed closing Riker’s Island, and even supported the once radical notion that a new jail in Queens shouldn’t be erected, in part, to replace the notorious jail complex. She has also promised to end the prosecution of “low-level” marijuana arrests and set up a unit to review wrongful convictions.
It’s entirely unclear if Katz, who once warned in a political ad that Cabán was “dangerously wrong” for Queens and even threatened the borough’s safety, will significantly reform an office of nearly 700 employees who are comfortable with a paradigm that prioritizes locking up as many defendants as possible. The retrograde president of the city’s most powerful police union, Patrick Lynch, schmoozed with Katz supporters at her victory party a week ago.
“Time will tell,” said State Senator Michael Gianaris, an influential Queens lawmaker who backed Cabán and used to enjoy a closer relationship with the Queens Democratic Party. “It’s a very public position and people will be watching, I’m sure.”
For the criminal justice reform advocates and leftists who long sought change in the Queens DA’s office, holding Katz accountable will mean showing up in court far more to monitor how closely she follows through on her campaign promises. It amounts to soft power over hard: building public pressure campaigns, marshaling media attention, and dangling the threat of a future electoral challenge.
Katz, they hope, will act accordingly.
“We need to be in the courts, physically,” said Aaron Taube, a DSA member from Queens who served as Cabán’s field organizer. “It’s really good to be claiming the courts as a public space and watching the assistant district attorneys and making sure that they’re doing the things Melinda Katz said she would do.”
“There’s an inherent soft power of coming within 60 votes,” Taube added. “If things don’t go the way they should go, four years from now there’s going to be a movement of people who are hungry for real, transformative criminal justice reform.”
One of Katz’s most vocal critics has been Jon McFarlane, a member of Court Watch NYC, an organization founded to train ordinary citizens in observing and reporting on what exactly occurs in New York’s opaque criminal justice system. McFarlane, who also attended Cabán’s party on Tuesday, said his approach to a Katz administration would be no different from what he and his allies had planned for the young public defender—relentless scrutiny to ensure promises are kept.
“It’s not about our preference. It’s about what you do when you’re in the office,” McFarlane said. “We are of the opinion she is going to keep a lot of the old guard around. That means accountability. If we can’t do it with meetings, we’re going to do it with protest.”
McFarlane vowed to hold Katz’s “feet to the fire” from the first day she takes office in January, hinting at planned public campaigns in the coming months. “We are going to ensure that she does right by the people. Not right by the real estate tycoons or the banking buddies.… we’re going to make sure she does right by the people.”