Echoes of the past, 64 years after last contested Queens DA primary

Frank O’Connor defeated incumbent T. Vincent Quinn by fewer than 2,000 votes in the 1955 primary election for queens da. Tiffany Cabán leads Melinda Katz by fewer than 2,000 votes with the final count set to begin Wednesday. AP Photo of O’Connor; AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

Frank O’Connor defeated incumbent T. Vincent Quinn by fewer than 2,000 votes in the 1955 primary election for queens da. Tiffany Cabán leads Melinda Katz by fewer than 2,000 votes with the final count set to begin Wednesday. AP Photo of O’Connor; AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

By David Brand

A candidate for Queens district attorney defeated a Democratic party favorite who enjoyed the power of borough-wide name recognition.

The primary race was extremely tight, but ultimately, the challenger won by fewer than 2,000 votes.

Sound familiar? 

It happened 64 years ago in the last contested Democratic primary for Queens DA.

In 1955, State Sen. Frank O’Connor defeated incumbent DA T. Vincent Quinn in the primary election, exposing a fissure among Queens Democrats split between dueling factions two years after Quinn was indicted on corruption charges related to his stint in Congress.

O’Connor initially received 33,969 votes to Quinn’s 31,961, the New York Times reported at the time, but O’Connor’s total decreased by about 500 votes after a recount. On June 25, Cabán received 34,104 votes and Katz earned 32,905 votes, according to the most up-to-date numbers from the Board of Elections. About 85,800 Democrats voted last Tuesday (compared to about 66,000 in 1955).

It isn’t a perfect comparison: O’Connor received the support of the Queens County Democratic Party, which had turned on Quinn following his indictment. This year, the county party backed Katz. There were also only two candidates that year, compared to seven this time around — and none of them have ever been indicted.

But again today, as the New York Times wrote in 1955, “Queens County, politically one of the most jagged terrains in the area, is the scene of the most outstanding election fight of the year.”

“Queens has a long history of political unpredictability,” the Times added.

A brief story on the Democratic primary for Queens DA in the Sept. 23, 1955 issue of The New York Times.  Image via the TimesMachine

A brief story on the Democratic primary for Queens DA in the Sept. 23, 1955 issue of The New York Times. Image via the TimesMachine

A bit of controversy ahead of the final count

The final vote count in the 2019 DA primary will start at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, eight days after the election.

There are 3,552 absentee ballots left to tally, a spokesperson from the Board of Elections told the Eagle. That number could increase as mail comes in before the count begins at the Board of Elections office in Forest Hills. 

There are also 2,781 affidavit ballots to count, though that number is likely to decrease as ballots are deemed invalid, the BOE spokesperson said. The election result will be officially certified after the count is complete.

Since re-canvassing the voting machines to check the ballot totals, Cabán’s campaign has called people who submitted affidavits to find out who they voted for — prompting a response from Katz’s campaign.

"Our strategy is simple: We believe every valid vote should be counted, period,” Katz’s campaign said. “And we do not believe that a potential prosecutor should be calling voters to ask to know who they voted for."

A person working for Cabán’s campaign said calling voters was “standard,” and Cabán’s spokesperson Monica Klein downplayed the issue.

"Volunteers from across the borough are calling voters to make sure every valid vote is counted — no matter what the Party machine may try to do," Klein said.

The campaign said they are confident the current result will hold.

“We are confident that if every valid vote is counted, Ms. Cabán will be the Democratic nominee for District Attorney,” the campaign said in a statement. “The people of Queens have spoken clearly that they believe that every community deserves justice.”

Aside from the affidavit spat, veteran election and campaign finance lawyer Jerry Goldfeder said the count will be a pretty straightforward process. Goldfeder is working on behalf of Cabán.

“I’m confident that this will be resolved in a few days once the paper ballots are counted and that Cabán will win,” Goldfeder said.

He previously worked for the campaign of Councilmember Rory Lancman, who dropped out of the race and endorsed Katz five days before the primary.

Echoes of the past

The fight continued in the days and weeks after the 1955 primary.

Quinn, the incumbent DA in 1955, claimed there were voting irregularities and requested a recount. Though Quinn picked up a few hundred additional votes, O’Connor held on to win.

A recount seems unlikely this time around, however. A spokesperson for the Board of Elections told THE CITY that a recount will only occur if a candidate leads by less than one-half of 1 percent of the total vote.

A clipping from the October 18, 1955 issue of The New York Times.  Image via the TimesMachine

A clipping from the October 18, 1955 issue of The New York Times. Image via the TimesMachine

After the result is certified, the Democratic nominee will face an uncertain opponent in the general election. And as in 1955, the Republican nominee could be a lapsed Democrat capitalizing on a fissure in their former party.

That year, O’Connor defeated Republican Vincent Leibell — a former Democrat and Manhattan assistant district attorney — in the general election. 

“Mr. O’Connor won the primary with a plurality of only 1,452 votes out of the nearly 66,000 votes cast. That raises the question whether the Quinn faction, which bitterly opposed Mr. O’Connor will now vote for the Democratic candidate, the Republican candidate or no candidate at all. Their votes, or lack of them, could mean the election,” the Times wrote.

Leibell, the Republican candidate and a former Democrat, called out the leftward drift of the Democrats in Queens, saying he expected support from Democrats “who detest the offensive efforts of the left wing New Dealers to seize control of the local government in Queens County.”

The same rift dominates coverage of the current race and the political reality on the ground, leaving a potential opening for the GOP.

Gregory Lasak, a former judge and prosecutor, may take over the Republican line on the November ballot, party members have speculated in conversations with the Eagle and other publications. 

Though Lasak was a protege of the late-Queens County Clerk and influential county Democrat Gloria D’Amico, the current GOP nominee said he would support Lasak taking his spot on the ballot.

Attorney Daniel Kogan told the Eagle he knew and respected Lasak, and said he would step aside to let him run as a Republican via the state’s Wilson Pakula Law.

“Judge Lasak is a neighbor of mine and I think he’d be a good candidate,” Kogan told the Eagle last week.

The Queens GOP did not respond to requests for comment.

For his part, Lasak has not ruled out seeking the GOP nomination.

“I’m just absorbing everything,” Lasak told the Eagle at his election night party in Bayside. “I haven’t thought about it.” 

Lasak’s campaign has not provided additional comment.