Progressives across the United States were pressing “refresh” and “refresh” and “refresh” Tuesday evening, searching for the latest results from a Democratic primary contest for district attorney in the New York City borough of Queens. The count was close throughout the night but, as midnight approached, the tally gave a clear lead to 31-year-old Tiffany Cabán, who has promised to create a model of “people-powered justice” for Queens–and for the whole of the United States.
With 99 percent of the vote counted, Cabán had 33,814 votes to 32,724 for the veteran politician who was widely seen as the frontrunner, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz. That was a narrow lead, 39.6 percent to 38.3 percent, and Katz refused to concede. But Cabán claimed victory. “When we started this thing, they said I was too young. They said I didn’t look like a district attorney. They said we could not build a movement from the grass roots,” she told a cheering crowd. “They said we could not win. But we did it y’all.”
“Transforming this system will not be easy, and it will not happen overnight,” Cabán announced. “But I am ready. We are ready.”
What Cabán and her backers have accomplished is epic in scope and character, as New York Working Families Party Director Bill Lipton explained Tuesday evening. “Tonight,” said Lipton, “Queens is turned upside down. Giants fall and empires crumble. Tiffany Caban has defeated the field and won the Democratic Primary for Queens District Attorney. By running, Tiffany changed the narrative. As District Attorney, she’ll change thousands of people’s lives.”
The change may begin in Queens, but it will not end there. “We have a criminal justice system that lets the rich off easy and cracks down hard on poor people, people of color and immigrants. But there has been a sea change in America on the politics of criminal justice. Tonight is more proof that the era of chest-beating ‘tough on crime’ is over. The era of a criminal justice system that sees success as locking up as many undesirables as possible is over. The era of mass incarceration is over,” said Lipton, who added that:
Tonight’s victory is most of all a victory for the humanity of those at the margins of society that have been criminalized and incarcerated for no good reason. This is a victory for people who want to see a criminal justice system with justice and safety for all.
Cabán’s was a grassroots campaign that walked the precincts of Queens, knocked the doors and made the face-to-face, voter-to-voter case for change. But it was cheered on by criminal justice reformers nationwide. The contest became so significant that the The New York Times ran its endorsement for the local race in the paper’s national edition.” Under the headline “Tiffany Cabán for Queens District Attorney,” the paper of record argued that, “Ms. Cabán identifies as a queer Latina. She is of Puerto Rican descent and is the first in her family to graduate from college. She would bring a perspective suited to one of the world’s most diverse communities, one where elected officials have rarely reflected that reality.”
That endorsement appeared less than a week before Tuesday’s election, on the same day that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted an endorsement of Cabán and another Democratic presidential contender, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, urging his supporters to back the Queens contender.
Suddenly, everyone was excited about the competition in Queens, and rightly so. This race by this woman for this office merited national attention.
Why? Begin with the fact that Queens has a population of almost 2.4 million—that’s bigger than 15 states and the District of Columbia. District attorneys serve in thousands of counties across the United States, but few have the platform that the Queens DA does to shift the country’s understanding of how a prosecutor’s office might be organized and focused. Cabán recognized the potential. As Isabel Cristo reminded us in a pre-election piece for The Nation, “Tiffany Cabán Wants to Transform What It Means to Be a DA.”
The Queens DA is the chief law-enforcement officer for a jurisdiction serving more people than the state attorneys general of New Mexico, Nebraska, West Virginia, and a dozen other states. If a barrier-breaking reformer who was running with enthusiastic support from socialist campaigners were to pull ahead in a race for a top state law-enforcement post anywhere in the country, that would draw attention beyond the border of the state. So it makes sense that Cabán’s remarkable run has attracted national attention.
Throughout the primary campaign, Cabán was blunt about her mission, declaring that she was “running to transform the Queens District Attorney’s office after years of witnessing its abuses on the front lines.” The 31-year-old lawyer promised to “Decriminalize Poverty and End Racist Law Enforcement.”
Backed by of the Working Families Party, Democratic Socialists of America, and Real Justice PAC, Cabán pledged to crack down on corporate crime, go after landlord abuses, work to close the Rikers Island prison and eliminate cash bail for all crimes. The ultimate goal of her primary campaign was ambitious—“End Mass Incarceration in Queens, Make Queens a Model for the World”—yet it was very much in sync with what her campaign aptly described as “a national movement to transform a broken justice system.” If she wins what should be an easy November contest, Cabán will join elected prosecutors such as Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner and Brooklyn’s Eric Gonzalez in the high-profile work of remaking law enforcement in our greatest urban centers.
That’s a huge undertaking. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Cabán faced stiff competition from serious rivals, including Katz and retired Judge Greg Lasak. The other candidates had attracted big-money and establishment backing in a borough where campaigning is costly, and where the county Democratic organization with which Katz has been closely tied has historically held sway at election time.
But Cabán, who was endorsed several weeks before the election by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, secured backing that AOC did not have a year ago when she won an upset Democratic primary victory over an entrenched Queens incumbent. The most important backing Cabán got in the primary campaign came from people who live in Queens, like New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer and New York state Assembly member Ron Kim.
At the same time, however, national endorsements helped to emphasize the importance of the Queens race and, as Krasner says, to identify Cabán as “the progressive candidate that we are supporting—and by we I mean those of us who care deeply about criminal justice reform.”
Warren, one of the most prominent law professors in the country before her election to the US Senate, tweeted last week about how “@CabanForQueens will fight for working families and work to end mass incarceration.”
Other candidates had powerful backers. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo backed Katz, as did a number of key unions. Cabán had to run uphill from the start of the race. Yet. as she said on Tuesday night, “we did it y’all.”
The prospect that she will take over as DA next January matters for Queens, and it matters far beyond Queens, as Sanders noted Tuesday night. “Tiffany Cabán took on virtually the entire political establishment and built a grassroots movement to win,” the senator said. “Her victory is a victory not just for the people of Queens, but for working people everywhere who are fighting for real political change and demanding we end cash bail, mass incarceration and the failed war on drugs.”