By David Brand, Emma Whitford, Jonathan Sperling and Victoria Merlino
Public defender Tiffany Cabán claimed victory in the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney by an extremely slim margin over Borough President Melinda Katz Tuesday night, but the result is too close to call with roughly 3,400 absentee ballots left to count.
Roughly 85,800 Democrats voted in the first contested Queens DA primary in decades, and Cabán maintains a 39.57 percent to 38.3 percent lead over Katz with 95.6 percent of votes reported. The winner of the contest will face Republican nominee Daniel Kogan in the November general election.
“They said I was too young, they said I didn’t look like a district attorney, they said we couldn’t build a movement from the grass roots, they said we could not win — but we did it y’all,” Cabán told supporters at her election night party in Woodside.
Katz, however, pledged to remain in the race until every ballot is counted.
"We are facing serious times in the United States of America. And we are facing very serious times here in Queens County. And we need to make sure as a county that we stand together, work together. That we keep our families safe. That we institute the great criminal justice reform that needs to be instituted here in the borough of Queens County,” Katz said. “And you know what ladies and gentlemen? We better get it right, because the country is watching how we do it."
If Cabán does hold on to win, her victory would mark the stunning culmination of a grassroots movement focused on major reforms in the way prosecutors seek to punish people accused and convicted of crimes. It is also the latest contest between a growing faction of progressive Democrats and the Queens County Democratic Party, a powerful organization that has lost traction in the borough since the defeat of its former boss, ex-U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley, to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last year. The county party and its leaders, including new chair, U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, endorsed Katz for DA; Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Cabán.
Cabán, a 31-year-old, queer Latina from Queens, has worked for two public defender organizations and did not announce that she would run for the top prosecutor job until January. The Eagle was the first publication to report on her candidacy.
Her initial campaign went through fits and starts as it shuffled campaign staff and struggled to generate money, but found its stride after receiving key endorsements and financial support from the Working Families Party and Real Justice PAC. Cabán’s campaign attracted progressives in Queens and across the country, and received money from thousands of small contributions as well as a handful of major cash infusions.
The wide-open Democratic primary to replace the late DA Richard Brown, who died in May after 28 years in office, was the first competitive DA primary in Queens since 1955. Seven Democrats appeared on the ballot, and the race hinged on each candidate’s commitment to local and national justice reforms. Each candidate’s campaign reflected the nationwide emphasis on electing progressive prosecutors.
Cabán said she that would not ask for cash bail under any circumstances, she would decline to prosecute a long list of misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, she would not seize defendants’ assets and she would provide open and early discovery — the sharing of evidence with defense counsel.
Several other candidates in the race, including Katz, echoed her positions or ones closely aligned with her. Cabán, however, was the only candidate to say she would not prosecute anyone involved in the consensual buying or selling of sex among adults.
The race featured major endorsements — including support from Ocasio-Cortez (who endorsed Cabán), Gov. Andrew Cuomo (who backed Katz) and two presidential candidates (who supported Cabán) — as well as millions of dollars from prominent billionaires, politicians and celebrities. Nevertheless, turnout was low in an off-year election with a first-for-New York June primary.
Six candidates canvassed the borough on Tuesday, driving their supporters to Get Out the Vote. The three frontrunners in the race — Cabán, Katz and former Queens Judge Gregory Lasak — carved out significant support in distinct sections of Queens.
Former Civilian Complaint Review Board Director Mina Malik toured Southeast Queens, attempting to attract voters in the powerful middle-class voting bloc, comprised mostly of black residents. Attorney Betty Lugo and former state Attorney General’s Office prosecutor Jose Nieves also tried to peel votes away from the front-runners.
Councilmember Rory Lancman, the first to announce his candidacy, dropped out of the race and endorsed Katz last week. His name still appeared on the ballot.
In addition to implementing prosecutorial reforms, each candidate said they would increase diversity in the office, which manages the criminal justice system in one of the world’s most diverse urban settings but is overwhelmingly white.
Like Ocasio-Cortez last year, Cabán galvanized progressives in Queens and across the country, earning recent endorsements from U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Unlike Ocasio-Cortez, who represents a piece of Western and Northern Queens, Cabán ran a boroughwide race. A few prominent leaders served as her surrogates.
“From the start Tiffany has demonstrated not only a wide understanding of what has been missing from the Queens DA’s office for a long time, but also the lived experiences of real people from Queens,” State Sen. Jessica Ramos told the Eagle in April. “She shows me we can achieve the bold, transformational change that we deserve.”
Cabán’s supporters embarked on a massive canvassing initiative, especially in Western Queens, motivating voters who seek an overhaul of the office where Brown and his leadership team served for nearly 30 years. Brown died in May, a few weeks before he had planned to officially retire from the office he took over in 1991. He never faced a primary challenger.
“I’m tired of old white guys doing the same old, same old,” said Sunnyside resident Leslie Gevirtz outside of P.S. 150 on 43rd Avenue on Tuesday morning. Gevirtz said she voted for Cabán and conveyed the importance of the primary election in a county where Democrats significantly outnumber Republicans.
“It’s primary day, this is when it counts. If you live in New York City and you don’t vote during the Democratic primary, it doesn’t really matter what you do in November, at least for local offices,” Gevirtz said.
On Tuesday evening, Cabán joined Ramos, State Sen. Julia Salazar and State Sen. Luis Sepulveda on a canvassing tour of Jackson Heights and Corona. The districts where she figured to perform well saw relatively high voter turnout compared to other regions of the Queens.
For example, more than 100 people had visited the polling site at P.S. 150 in Sunnyside between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., a poll worker said. At P.S. 69 in Jackson Heights, Election Coordinator Mohammed Alam said more voters than expected had showed up.
The early turnout at the sites contrasted polling places in other parts of the borough. Just 22 people had voted at Grover Cleveland High School in Ridgewood by 9:15 a.m; only 14 at a site in Rochdale around the same time.
Southeast Queens poll workers and election observers reported relatively low turnout numbers in the area into the evening. Many of the voters who did show up said they cast their ballots for Katz.
“She’s doing what’s expected. I feel she is trying to get the community together,” said lifelong St. Albans resident Jennifer, 42, who visited the polls with her son.
Katz focused much of her campaigning on the area, and her palm cards appeared on windshields along the road near St. Albans Presbyterian.
“I like how she’s in the neighborhood,” said Winsome Scarlett, 59. “She let herself be known ... not just on Election Day.”
In Jamaica, Sadrum Noor said he voted for Katz because “she does a lot for the Muslim community.” Noor said he had met Katz on numerous occasions and even received a community award from her.
In Northeast Queens, a generally more conservative region, several voters who spoke with the Eagle said they supported Lasak, who earned support from various law enforcement interests and former prosecutors.
“Lasak. He’s an experienced judge. Katz, no way in hell,” said Bayside resident Marguerita Rowland, 36. “There’s another guy who would have been decent? The military guy? Yeah, Nieves. He would have been my second choice.”
Jim Kaplan a retired Bayside resident said he felt compelled to vote — though he wouldn’t say for whom.
"I got the immediate sense that this is very under-attended and I hope more people come out. I served on jury duty under Brown and he came and met everybody,” Kaplan said. “I was very impressed and served for a month. Since then, I've thought this was important. I would not feel comfortable not coming out for something like this."
"I've been around since [former Borough President] Donald Manes and this is the most unusual race I've seen. I don't feel like it's been the machine that's decided [who will win] and I appreciate it,” he added. “That's a sign that voters need to participate."
Additional reporting by Phineas Rueckert.