By Miriam B
Last year, DSA helped to transform politics in America, by playing a key role in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset primary victory for Congress. This year, we can help transform criminal justice and thousands of lives, freeing thousands of our neighbors from jail and the threat of prosecution for crimes of poverty, by electing Tiffany Cabán as Queens District Attorney. NYC-DSA’s Citywide Leadership Committee voted on February 10 to endorse Cabán, a career public defender and DSA member. Now, we’re preparing to mount a massive field campaign that can carry her to victory in the Democratic Primary on June 25, 2019.
A Leftist Candidate in a Crowded Field
Cabán is a queer Latina, born and raised in a working-class home in South Richmond Hill, Queens. She sees running for DA as a logical extension of her years of taking a holistic, trauma-informed approach to justice and public health and safety, because District Attorneys have so much power to decide when and how to prosecute. She is clearly the furthest-left candidate in a field of seven running for the seat that retiring DA Richard Brown has held since 1991, when Mario Cuomo appointed him to fill a vacancy.
For decades, the Queens DA Office has been second only to Staten Island’s for repressive legal enforcement in New York City. It continues to prosecute people for possession of small quantities of pot and for jumping turnstiles, and insists on cash bail, which many people can’t afford for these and other nonviolent offenses. The Queens DA Office is also notorious for requiring defendants to waive their rights to a speedy trial before offering a plea deal, and for withholding potentially exculpatory evidence from the defense until just before trial.
Almost all the candidates claim they will eliminate cash bail (a practice that the state legislature may soon limit sharply anyway). The most conservative are Gregory Lasak, a retired judge and former Queens Assistant District Attorney, and Borough President Melinda Katz, a one-time real estate attorney who earned the Democratic County Democratic machine’s endorsement. The others are long-term politicians (Councilmember Rory Lancman) or current or former prosecutors.
Cabán is the only public defender in the race. She has pledged to reduce incarceration in Queens by 75% in just a couple of years by virtually ending pre-trial detention, using prosecutorial discretion to decline to prosecute for drug possession and sex work, reducing misdemeanor charges to violations when possible, never asking for life without parole, and cutting recidivism through referrals to effective and humane programs that help solve the problems that lead to crime.
Alone among the candidates, she’s not just for closing Rikers, she’s against building new jails; she’s not just determined to stop criminalizing poverty, she plans to tackle such corporate crimes as wage theft, tenant abuse, and fraudulent marketing of and overprescription of opioids. Cabán wants to treat addiction as a medical issue, to center community solutions to the problems that lead to crime, and to make Queens a model of restorative justice.
A summary of her platform is available here. The campaign is now consulting with leading prison abolitionists and other leftist policy experts to refine her positions.
The Path to Victory
Winning this race will be difficult, but it’s doable, as the Ocasio-Cortez campaign was. Like Ocasio-Cortez, Cabán is running a grassroots, people-powered campaign; she’s starting out with little money and is spurning corporate funds, and she’s up against relatively well-known politicians with big war chests. Katz and Lancman have raised more than $1 million dollars each, including money left over from prior campaigns; Lasak has quickly raised several hundred thousand dollars, mostly from police unions and other law-and-order entities. The other candidates, including prosecutors Jose Nieves, Betty Lugo, and Mina Malek, are less well-known and haven’t filed financial reports yet. They are using their personal wealth to get their campaigns underway.
It’s hard to calculate what it will take to win a campaign with this many candidates in a county with 2.4 million residents and nearly 800,000 registered Democrats. Countywide turnout in contested Democratic primaries in recent years has ranged from as low as 82,413 to 228,950. The win numbers have ranged from 41,289 to 114,704.
Since this is an off-season race, without the higher turnout and visibility of a presidential or gubernatorial election year, there’s no reason to expect voter turnout above 120,000, says Kat Dale, a member of the Queens DSA Electoral Working Group’s Steering Committee and a self-described data nerd. She estimates the win number will most likely be below 50,000, but could be as low as 34,000 or as high as 63,000.
Money is important (please donate, organize house parties and email your friends!), but a great field operation is crucial. That’s where Cabán should have the edge. The Democratic County machine is a shadow of its old self, relying mostly on uninspired paid canvassers. Katz, Lancman, and Lasak have hired expensive consultants, but don’t have a strong volunteer base. The other candidates haven’t run before, and don’t networks as large as Cabán’s.
The Cabán campaign is co-managed by Vigie Ramos Rios and Martha Ayon. Last year, Ramos Rios was campaign manager last year for Ocasio-Cortez’s upset election, recruiting and deploying armies of volunteers. Ayon last year managed Jumaane Williams’s near-win for Lieutenant Governor, after 14 years of political, labor and community organizing in New York. She knows every political group in Queens. They’re reaching out to alumni of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign and progressive groups across Queens and New York City, as well as Tiffany’s queer and public defense networks. The campaign’s core team is overwhelmingly female, queer, and people of color. So far NYC-DSA, New Queens Democrats and One Queens Indivisible have endorsed Cabán.
DSA plans to gather at least 10,000 petition signatures (4,000 are required). We started on the first day of petitioning, February 26, when dedicated voters went to the polls to vote in the special election for Public Advocate. We’re aiming to line up more than 100 volunteers for a kickoff canvassing event on March 2. After that, we’ll be canvassing almost daily at subway stations, door-to-door, and at public events, focusing in the areas where most of our Queens members live (Astoria, Long Island City, Sunnyside, Hunter’s Point, Jackson Heights, and Ridgewood), as well as parts of central and eastern Queens.
The logic is to boost our turnout in our base areas, while taking votes away from other challengers in swing territories. Petitioning will be used to gauge responsiveness to Cabán’s message so we can target better during the persuasion phase of the campaign. NYC-DSA has never undertaken so large an electoral effort. We need hundreds of volunteers from across New York City to help Cabán end mass incarceration in Queens, free our neighbors, and deal a knockout blow to the corrupt Queens political machine. Sign up here for the March 2 canvassing kickoff or to help with communications, research or fundraising.