Since she took office, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has doled out endorsements sparingly. The 29-year-old congresswoman, an unquestioned national force, has not attempted to play New York kingmaker like the man she defeated, Joe Crowley. Municipal politics has largely churned along without her.
That changed on May 22 when Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Tiffany Cabán, a 31-year-old public defender, for district attorney in the borough she represents, Queens. In the weeks since, Cabán has racked up a surprising number of high-profile endorsements, including that of The New York Times editorial board and presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
The DA race, a seven-way Democratic primary that will decided on June 25—almost exactly a year after Ocasio-Cortez slayed Crowley—had remained more or less under the radar until recently, though the stakes are incredibly high. Queens, a borough of more than 2 million people, is one of the largest counties in America, and Cabán, a progressive in the mold of prosecutors like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner and St. Louis’s Wesley Bell, could instantly become a nationwide leader in the criminal-justice-reform movement.
Before Cabán can be vaulted into Ocasio-Cortez’s rarefied air, she needs to run through the Queens Democratic establishment. This time, their candidate is Melinda Katz, the Queens borough president. Like Crowley, Katz for much of her career never identified as a leftist, but she has shifted some of her positions closer to Cabán’s over the course of the campaign. Katz now favors ending cash bail, chasing ICE from courthouses, and closing New York City’s hellish jail complex Riker’s Island.
Among close watchers of the race, the only other candidate given a serious chance is Greg Lasak, a former judge and longtime Queens prosecutor who is running well to the right of both women. Lasak is the chosen candidate of law-enforcement unions.
“At this point, it’s very much a two-person race and I think we represent very different things,” Cabán said in an interview. “I represent a clean break from the status quo, not incremental but bold, transformative change.”
A Cabán campaign video takes direct aim at Katz, mocking the longtime politician for her lack of courtroom experience. Laughter, at Katz’s expense, can be heard off camera.
After ignoring Cabán for much of the campaign, Katz is now punching back. “I know Tiffany just moved to Queens, right, so she may not know some of the history here,” Katz said. “I stood up to powerful interests my entire career.”
Katz, like detractors of Ocasio-Cortez, has portrayed Cabán as an outsider lacking deep community ties. Cabán grew up in Queens, went to high school there, and now lives in Astoria. But in 2013, 2016, and 2017, she voted out of addresses on the Upper East Side and central Brooklyn, according to Board of Elections records.
In one sense, the clash between Cabán and Katz can be understood as a test of whether the city’s progressive insurgency can again overcome a powerful establishment candidate. The similarities between Ocasio-Cortez and Cabán are obvious: millennial Latinas facing down Gen X white politicians who came to dominate the Queens Democratic politics. Katz won the borough presidency with Crowley’s enthusiastic backing.
Both Katz and Crowley cultivated close ties with New York’s dominant real-estate lobby. Crowley’s Queens Democratic machine worked closely with real-estate players in political fights. When she served in the City Council, Katz chaired the coveted Land Use committee, where she had a say over major development projects in all five boroughs. After leaving the City Council, she was a well-compensated attorney at Greenberg Traurig, lobbying for real-estate clients.
Cabán’s coalition is actually more robust than Ocasio-Cortez’s ever was before Election Day. Since Crowley was viewed as such a lock to win, elected official endorsements for Ocasio-Cortez were virtually nonexistent. The Working Families Party supported Crowley and lent him their ballot line. Mainstream-media organizations mostly ignored Ocasio-Cortez; The New York Times, before her victory, only took note of her as one of three curious congressional insurgents in the five boroughs.
This time, wary of missing out on another seismic victory, left-leaning organizations and elected officials are flocking to Cabán’s camp. The WFP was an early endorser, joining the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, whose backing gave Cabán’s formerly shoestring operation immediate legitimacy. Politicians are finding the bandwagon: beyond Ocasio-Cortez, Warren, and Sanders, Cabán has the support of a dozen elected officials in New York City, along with several political clubs. Positive press has piled up.
Progressive organizations like Make the Road Action and VOCAL NY, groups dedicated to immigration rights and criminal-justice reform respectively, are backing Cabán, as is the New York Progressive Action Network (an outgrowth of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign) and No IDC NY, the umbrella organization founded to chase the Republican-aligned Independent Democratic Conference from power last year.
“This coalition is representative of a movement, a movement that is continuing to say we are going to center the experiences of low-income and working-class families, we are going to fight systemic inequities,” Cabán said.
This coalition, a marriage of the radical and the savvy, might better be understood as a successor not just to the Ocasio-Cortez campaign but also to Cynthia Nixon’s, the insurgency that failed to topple Governor Andrew Cuomo in last year’s primary. This is the sobering news for a Cabán campaign that otherwise has a real chance of victory in a crowded field, one that is also confronting odds that might be longer than Ocasio-Cortez’s last June.
Cuomo’s crushing statewide victory over Nixon was fueled by a historic cash disparity and support from powerful labor unions. He spent more than $26 million on the primary, compared to Nixon’s paltry $2.6 million. Thanks to Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement, Cabán is not nearly the fundraising underdog Nixon was, in part because Katz has been unable to build such an enormous lead. While Katz has far outraised Cabán overall—the borough president crossed the $2 million threshold—the DSA-backed challenger managed to outdo Katz in the most recent filing, pulling in about $242,000 to Katz’s $172,000. More striking was the difference in the number of donations: 4,518 for Cabán, just 144 for Katz. Records show Ocasio-Cortez’s e-mail blasts powered much of this surge.
Like Cuomo, Katz has consolidated the organized-labor world behind her candidacy. New York’s big four—UFT, 1199 SEIU, 32BJ SEIU, and the Hotel and Motel Trades Council—are supporting Katz, which will mean additional cash, hundreds if not thousands of bodies for get-out-the-vote efforts, and member-to-member contact, an underrated power of large, sophisticated unions. The unions cross racial boundaries: Teachers tend to be white, construction and health-care workers nonwhite.
This is what “machine” politics in New York really looks like—a union of labor, big real estate, and influential politicians. The Queens Democratic Party itself, with its dying political clubs, is almost beside the point. The unions don’t always agree and their endorsements are largely transactional, but for powerful incumbents like Cuomo or long-standing pols like Katz, they will close ranks together. Personal relationships go a long way. “She is the borough president who invited me out multiple times to talk to parent groups,” said Michael Mulgrew, the longtime UFT president.
Labor unions and movement progressives are not always at odds. Unique moments, like the insurgent campaigns against the IDC a year ago, joined major unions like 32BJ in common cause with activists. Some progressives, especially those in DSA working on elections, hope to drag the unions leftward and eventually build an unassailable coalition less beholden to the status quo.
“We want to keep building power and winning races, and I think the long term of left movements anywhere needs to include the labor movement,” said Aaron Taube, a Cabán field organizer and Queens DSA member. “We want to get to a place where the teachers union endorses our candidate.”
Taube himself is an example of the new movement coalition. His salary, he said, is paid by the Working Families Party, not the Cabán campaign. The WFP is a third party that was once funded by the major unions that are now backing Katz’s campaign; it joined progressive activists and risk-averse labor unions in a coalition that, in retrospect, could only survive so long, especially with a governor who despised WFP’s leftist agenda. Under severe pressure from Cuomo, these large unions deserted the WFP, depriving the party of cash and boots on the ground.
In turn, the WFP, though diminished, was liberated to follow its progressive conscience, backing Nixon for governor, socialist Julia Salazar for State Senate, and now Cabán for district attorney. It functions more as a high-powered leftist consultant than a political party, lending direction to a Cabán campaign that, like many first-time outfits, struggled with staff turnover. (Cabán, unlike Nixon, does not have the actual WFP ballot line.)
“There are a lot of engaged groups that have risen since 2016 that are fueling these challenges,” said Bill Lipton, WFP’s state director, who described his party’s collaboration with DSA as “hand in glove.”
The Katz campaign hopes to blunt Cabán’s insurgency in neighborhoods beyond Ocasio-Cortez’s western Queens turf. Queens is vast, geographically the largest of the five boroughs. The borough’s middle-class black population—overwhelmingly Democratic and a reliable source of votes in low-turnout primaries—is viewed as Katz’s trump card, due to the number of elected official and clergy endorsements she’s racked up in Southeast Queens, where many home-owning blacks live.
Cabán’s campaign has been canvassing there too, along with another candidate with more courtroom experience than Katz, Mina Malik, a former Queens prosecutor and executive director of the Civilian Complaint Review Board. But it’s Katz who has the cash to boast two field offices in the region alone.
“These are the precincts that have fed the Queens criminal courthouse,” said Alicia Hyndman, a Southeast Queens assemblywoman backing Katz. “It’s important for me to make sure that someone would be [running the DA’s office] who knows who all the pastors are, who all the community leaders are, so we stop feeding the Queens criminal-justice system. I need to know I could trust someone to put a stop to that.”
In the final days of the campaign, Cabán has been a hustling, near-ubiquitous presence: canvassing train stations in Jackson Heights, shooting hoops in South Jamaica, staging yet another endorsement press conference with a progressive, out-of-state prosecutor, this time Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins. Katz has been less publicly available. On Monday night, she skipped a forum at the Queensbridge Houses, the largest public-housing development in America. A week earlier, she missed another forum on the Rockaway peninsula to attend a fundraiser headlined by Cuomo.
Joe Crowley also receded from view shortly before one of the more stunning upsets in modern political history. Katz has the benefit of history: We now know black-swan elections can happen anywhere, anytime, from the presidency on down. Queens, New York, was ground zero for one generation-defining insurgency. Maybe it can be for two.