On Monday night, Melinda Katz waded into the same steamy bar in Forest Hills where, just a month ago, her political career appeared to be crashing to an end.
“Welcome to election night two,” Katz, the Queens borough president, said from the stage, her blue-and-gold campaign signs pasted behind her. “We were having a difficult time in the papers. We weren’t sure if we won or lost.”
Katz was at Banter, an Irish bar slinging Buffalo wings and chicken pot pie, to declare victory. She was up 60 votes in a Queens district attorney’s race that had promised to transform the criminal justice system of one of America’s largest counties. Earlier that day, after a recount that lasted just under two weeks, the Board of Elections had certified Katz the victor over Tiffany Cabán, the once unknown public defender who appeared to be on the verge of defeating Katz in June.
Cabán, a democratic socialist, led by over 1,100 votes on election night, but subsequently lost her lead when absentee votes were tallied and a shockingly large number went for Katz. A euphoric night for Cabán—and devasting one for many in the New York political establishment—devolved into uncertainty, as Katz took a 16-vote lead and then added to her tally when paper ballots were painstakingly recounted by hand.
But the saga isn’t quite over. On Wednesday, the Cabán campaign was in Queens State Supreme Court to challenge the outcome of the election. At stake are a relatively small number of ballots that were disqualified, for various reasons, by the BOE. Cabán’s lawyers want these ballots to be counted, in the hope that a 60-vote deficit can be erased. Such an outcome would be unprecedented: No one can recall a certified election in New York State being overturned by the courts.
Judge John Ingram, a Brooklyn Republican tapped to preside over the case because he does not have ties to the Queens Democratic Party, ruled that he would review 28 unopened affidavit ballots—paper ballots cast by voters that, for various reasons, were not listed on the rolls at their polling sites—that the Cabán campaign argues were unfairly disqualified. There are many other ballots her lawyers want counted, but Ingram did not indicate yet how he would proceed on those. Never has Queens seen a recount on this scale—more than 90,000 people voted—with a margin that was so close.
The core of the Cabán campaign’s ultimately long-shot argument boils down to 21 ballots in her favor that they say were erroneously disqualified during the manual recount, and another 21 Katz ballots that they contend were improperly validated. Cabán’s election lawyer, the veteran Democrat Jerry Goldfeder, said there were, in addition, 67 affidavit ballots wrongly disqualified because the voters, registered Democrats in Queens, made the error of not noting their party affiliation on the paperwork. There is one more ballot Goldfeder said was erroneously thrown out for having an incomplete address.
Goldfeder added there are “hundreds” of voters who went to the wrong polling sites who should have had their votes counted. The campaign, however, plans to litigate 22 that were invalidated.
“At the end of the day, if we are allowed to proceed, to have all these ballots opened and canvassed, I think we will be fine,” Goldfeder said after the hearing.
The mood at the hearing, held on the sixth floor of the Sutphin Boulevard courthouse, was tense. Both attorneys for the BOE and Katz sought to have the case dismissed. An attorney for the BOE, citing past case law, argued that the Cabán campaign had missed an opportunity to legally object to ballots because the election had already been certified.
“The Board of Election in the City of New York is supposed to ease voting,” Goldfeder shot back. “That’s a pretty egregious position to take.”
The hearing was a vivid illustration of just how much is on the line for the Queens Democratic Party, once ruled by Joe Crowley, whom Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez vanquished last June. While AOC’s election was seismic, it did not fundamentally change the machinery of the local party organization, though, and three Crowley-affiliated lawyers—Gerard Sweeney, Michael Reich, and Frank Bolz—still run the party¿’s day-to-day operations. All are working, pro bono, on behalf of Katz, and all three, along with Crowley’s replacement, Representative Gregory Meeks, were in court Wednesday. A Katz victory would preserve some of their organization’s clout in the wake of the Ocasio-Cortez and Cabán insurgencies.
Sweeney in particular has long been a kingmaker in New York politics: One front-runner to become the next mayor of New York City, Corey Johnson, became speaker of the City Council largely because Sweeney’s Queens Democrats organized an unbreakable voting bloc in support of him. In a rare public appearance, he delivered a fiery attack on Cabán’s legal strategy, assailing her campaign’s “stupid press notices” and repeatedly referencing, indirectly, a misleading tweet from Cabán backer Shaun King that claimed the election was being stolen for Katz.
Sweeney contended that Goldfeder had never filed a bill of particulars, meaning there weren’t specific enough objections to certain ballots to build a valid legal case. “The only notice we received as to any of these issues they have is through the press,” Sweeney said. “There’s no information at all claiming what relief they’re looking for.”
“You don’t get to do it on Twitter,” he added.
The scene was a stark reminder that Cabán is playing on the Queens machine’s home turf. Sweeney, as counsel to the public administrator, regularly rakes in over a million dollars a year processing the estates of those who die without wills in Surrogate’s Court. His usual courtroom is located just steps away from where the hearing took place.
Afterward, Sweeney hovered behind the reporters gathered near the courthouse, looking on as Goldfeder fielded questions. He refused to elaborate on his courtroom remarks. “Write down everything I spoke in court,” he said, walking away.
As Queens’s demographics continue to shift, leftists are only more emboldened for city and state elections in 2020 and 2021. The Democratic Socialists of America, who backed both Ocasio-Cortez and Cabán, continue to gather strength in the western half of the borough. And elsewhere, given the failure of the sitting Queens borough president to win a commanding victory over a neophyte outsider, there are fewer reasons for newly elected politicians to pledge fealty to people like Meeks and Sweeney.
Outside the Queens courthouse on Wednesday, Meeks sounded sanguine. His candidate and longtime friend appeared closer than ever to finally becoming the next district attorney of the borough. He was satisfied with Sweeney’s argument, confident the court would throw out the case and, in turn, deliver a rebuke to a progressive revolt that almost seized control of the uniquely powerful office.
“It seems to me the Cabán campaign is playing two different games. One when they thought they were winning and another when they found out they were losing,” Meeks said. “You can’t have it both ways.”