By Victoria Merlino and David Brand
The Democratic primary for Queens district attorney ended Tuesday, nearly 11 months after the first candidate formally announced his candidacy and 43 days after the last ballot was cast in the too-close-call primary election.
Borough President Melinda Katz won after a full manual recount — the first in Queens since 1955 — resulted in her 60-vote lead. That Board of Elections-certified result was the culmination of a stunning turn for Katz, who trailed public defender Tiffany Cabán by 1,100 votes after the unofficial election night returns. Katz reversed that deficit after a tally of absentee and affidavit ballots last month.
Cabán gathered with her supporters, including several Queens lawmakers, Tuesday night at a bar in Astoria to concede defeat, her hopes of an unlikely come-from-behind victory dashed by a state Supreme Court judge’s decision not to open dozens of contested affidavit ballots earlier in the day.
Those ballots — there were 68 according to her campaign — were completed by registered Democrats who did not include their party affiliation on the ballot envelope, making them invalid under state election law. The uncounted votes were the last chance for Cabán, whose election attorneys had whittled Borough President Melinda Katz’s lead from 60 to 55 votes at a hearing before Justice John Ingram Tuesday in Forest Hills.
Ahead of the court challenge, election experts said Ingram might consent to opening the envelopes. In the end, he did not.
“I think that it was a reasonable decision guided by the statute,” said election attorney Sarah Steiner. “While as a matter of policy, I would have liked to see him open the ballots, his decision wasn’t wrong.”
“I think in this case, following the letter of the law was the best case,” Steiner added.
Cabán’s election attorney Jerry Goldfeder said the campaign fought hard to ensure as many votes were counted as possible in a race that drew nationwide attention to the state’s “arcane” voting laws. However, he said, “even the most tenacious litigator like me sometimes comes up short.”
The veteran election attorney called himself a “born optimist” and said he hopes the election will prompt changes to election law that ensure more votes are counted in future contests.
“I think what this race teaches us is that each and every vote count and New York’s laws need a real overhaul,” he said. “Its a shame that so many voters’ ballots didn’t count for hyper-technical, arcane reasons. I hope Albany reforms our laws.”
During her concession speech, Cabán noted how far her grassroots campaign had come in just a few months. Cabán, 32, was virtually unknown until earlier this year when her campaign galvanized Queens progressives before picking up endorsements and financial support from the Working Families Party and criminal justice reformers in New York City and nationwide. The Eagle was the first publication to cover her candidacy in January.
“Stages like this were not made or built for people like me. And that has changed,” Cabán told supporters.
“We terrified the Democratic establishment,” she added, prompting cheers. She said she looked forward to holding the next Queens DA accountable, working to reform the election system and furthering the progressive movement.
“We will be and are undeniable,” she said.
Katz will almost certainly win the November general election in the overwhelmingly Democratic borough. The Republican nominee for DA, South Ozone Park attorney Daniel Kogan, told the Eagle in June that he was unsure he would run an active campaign and even suggested he would step aside to let former Judge Gregory Lasak, who finished third in the Democratic primary, run on the GOP line.
Following Cabán’s concession, her supporters said they were heartened by her impact on the race, which served as a referendum on the nearly three-decade tenure of late-Queens DA Richard Brown and his top officials.
Throughout the race, she pushed her six opponents, including Katz, further to the left on justice reform issues. Katz, for example, committed to never asking for cash bail under any circumstances, mirroring an early position of Cabán and Councilmember Rory Lancman, who later dropped out of the race.
Supporters took to Twitter to thank Cabán for running a progressive campaign.
“Thank you, [Cabán], for putting your heart and soul into this race. You built an incredible movement, and while we’d get the justice Queens needs a lot faster with you in charge, your campaign planted so many seeds and has made Queens (and the country) a better place.” wrote one Twitter user.
“You organized a huge movement. The entire world had eyes on Queens. You are 100% right this fight is just beginning!” wrote another.
State Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Cabán supporter, told the Eagle he is excited for the future of the progressive movement in Queens, which Cabán elevated.
“A shot was fired across the bow,” Gianaris said.