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How Tiffany Cabán Lost the Vote But Won the Fight in Queens

Tiffany Cabán speaks to Jacobin about her stunning left-wing challenge to the Queens County Democratic machine in the recent district attorney’s race. Although her campaign came just short of victory, the movement against mass incarceration — and New York City politics — will never be the same.

Public defender Tiffany Cabán, candidate for Queens district attorney, walks with supporters in Jackson Heights, Queens hours before polls closed for the borough's Democratic primary election, June 25, 2019 in the Queens borough of New York City. (Scott Heins / Getty Images)

Last week, former public defender Tiffany Cabán ended her insurgent campaign to become the next Queens district attorney, effectively closing the final chapter of the hotly contested, seven-way Democratic primary. During an emotional concession speech at an appreciation party for her supporters last Tuesday, Cabán remained defiant. “There is still so much work to be done in Queens and beyond. And you better believe I’m going to keep on fighting,” she said to thunderous applause. “We got work to do.”

After first declaring victory to a jubilant crowd of supporters on June 25 with an 1,100-vote lead over establishment candidate and Queens borough president Melinda Katz, Cabán saw her lead evaporate when Katz not only made up the deficit but took a sixteen-vote lead once absentee votes were counted the following day. The slim margin of victory triggered a manual recount that dragged on for weeks, concluding with the NY Board of Elections certifying Katz as the winner. As a last resort, Cabán’s team launched an expensive legal challenge arguing that a number of affidavit ballots were wrongly invalidated. However, after a series of hearings, Judge John G. Ingram ruled not to open a set of affidavit ballots that failed to properly state the voter’s political party affiliation. This left the Cabán campaign with little wiggle room to maneuver. With few options left, Cabán was forced to concede to Katz.

Yet, a week after the turmoil of a campaign, Cabán doesn’t view her defeat as a failure —her progressive message, she says, resonated with voters. If anything, her campaign and the grassroots movement it helped spearhead represent an affirmation of her beliefs. “Our campaign changed the debate around criminal justice reform. We’ve helped make issues like the decriminalization of sex work, bail reform, and the overcriminalization of poverty part of the national conversation,” she told Jacobin. “Perhaps most importantly, we talked about addressing the root causes of crime and the systemic oppression and inequities driving it. We drove conversations about our responsibility to center public health and public safety outcomes, and said it’s time to divest from a culture of convictions at all costs that has not made us safer and has devastated our black and brown communities.”

Cabán’s attempt at radically transforming one of the largest district attorney offices in the country was noteworthy, among other things, because of the level of national attention the local primary received. National publications like Time and the Nation covered her campaign. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, endorsed her. A number of her policy proposals, including ending cash bail and decriminalizing sex work, sparked debate among the Democratic presidential candidates, reverberating across the country and proving that candidates could be unapologetically progressive without having to pander to the Right. “Throughout this election, our campaign prioritized the needs and voices of our local communities. We brought together community leaders, organizers, formerly incarcerated people, sex workers, and undocumented immigrants to voice Queens’ demand for a criminal justice system that applies the law fairly across racial and class lines, centers community-based solutions, and puts an end to racist and classist policies,” says Cabán. “When it comes to criminal justice reform, people are realizing that safety does not have to come at the expense of fairness and justice. Our campaign has shown that by centering the voices and experiences of folks directly impacted, it’s possible for candidates to successfully run on a bold vision for criminal justice reform.”

Undoubtedly, much of the interest was also sparked by what commentators viewed as a bellwether battle between establishment Democrats and the emerging progressive wing of the party, led by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Cabán’s potential win not only would have ushered in a new age of criminal justice reform — a wide-ranging effort to dismantle the racist legacy of former Queens district attorney Richard A. Brown — but it also would have represented a seismic shift away from the stranglehold of political machines.

The local significance of Cabán’s campaign in this borough of 2 million people was remarkable. Cabán’s team was able to mobilize more than a thousand volunteers, raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations, and inspire an entirely new generation of civically engaged community organizers. “This election showed what we can accomplish through grassroots organizing. Eight months ago, I was an unknown candidate with almost no resources up against a powerful political machine. Beginning with the DSA, and then with organizations like VOCAL, Make the Road, and WFP, we developed a road map and a coalition capable of taking on the establishment. All of that was possible because we offered a bold and effective platform that resonated with our communities,” said Cabán. “Organizers and volunteers powered this campaign by building a coalition that will continue to reshape Queens. Our campaign represented an important step in returning political power to the grassroots and our communities.”

For many of Cabán’s supporters, it was acutely frustrating that she came within just a few votes of victory. Others have gone as far as to accuse the Queens County Democratic Party and the Board of Elections (BOE) of conspiring against Cabán by engaging in voter suppression and fraud. Little evidence exists that suggests anything illegal took place, and Cabán’s campaign has distanced itself from those claims while criticizing the archaic voting laws that prevent a truly democratic election. “We have not claimed any evidence of fraudulent activity by the BOE. But there are many ballots cast by registered and eligible Democratic voters that have been wrongly invalidated due to BOE errors — and if these ballots are not counted, then it will amount to voter disenfranchisement endorsed by the BOE and the Queens County Democratic Party,” said Monica Klein, Cabán’s campaign spokesperson. “It doesn’t take fraud or a criminal conspiracy to deny legitimate and eligible voters a chance to make their voices heard. New York has some of the most restrictive voting laws and requirements in the country, and that’s one of the reasons we see such low turnout in local and state elections.”

However, much of the chagrin regarding the election’s outcome has been directed toward the Queens Democratic Party for its wholehearted support of Katz. “The organization made every effort to clear the path for their preferred candidate and create obstacles for our campaign. This election has been a clear demonstration of machine politics against grassroots organizing,” said Klein. A year before the primary took place, the county party handpicked their preferred candidate behind closed doors and gave them access to fundraising, consultants, and data. There’s nothing democratic about that process, and that influence comes at the expense of the people. Just because there is nothing criminal that took place doesn’t mean it’s a healthy recipe for our democracy.”

Representative Gregory Meeks, chairman of the Queens County Democratic Party, pushed back on the notion that the organization’s process for endorsing candidates is undemocratic or acted against the will of Queens residents.“The Queens Democratic Organization always deals with its different leaders from across the county to get a broad breadth of the communities and where they stand,” he told Jacobin during Katz’s victory party in Forest Hills, Queens. “As the election results show, Melinda Katz, with the exception of four or five districts, won each assembly district, and that’s the result of district leaders coming together to pick who best represents their communities.”

Reflection

With time to reflect on the campaign, Cabán believes that her transformative criminal-justice reform policies won out despite her personal defeat. “We forced the next district attorney to commit to reforms like the creation of a wrongful conviction unit and ending cash bail completely,” said Cabán. “As a result, Queens County now has the opportunity to be a model of what real, meaningful restorative justice can look like.” In the coming weeks, Cabán will be taking time out for some much-needed rest so she can contemplate what to do next. It’s a question she is asked a lot these days, and a question she would rather not be asked. She does, however, plan to continue to fight for social justice. “This is my life’s work. Whatever comes next will be in furtherance of dismantling our system of mass incarceration.”

When asked if there was anything she would change about the campaign if she could do it over again, Cabán had no regrets. “It’s always easy to play Monday morning quarterback. We built the biggest, most diverse coalition a borough-wide race has ever seen, and we changed history,” she said. “We started with no money, no staff, and no resources, and we fell short by only a handful of votes — closer than anybody would have imagined eight months ago. As this movement continues to grow and educate voters, it will play an even bigger role in future elections. Our coalition is ready to continue to organize and drive change in Queens and beyond.”