Overcoming united opposition from New York City’s powerful Democratic political machine, 31-year-old progressive public defender Tiffany Cabán declared victory in the race for Queens district attorney Tuesday night after running on a platform of decarceration, ending cash bail, decriminalizing sex work, and cracking down on predatory lenders.
“When people come together, we can beat big money in elections. People power is no fluke.”
—Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
“They said I was too young,” Cabán declared during her victory party. “They said I didn’t look like a district attorney. They said we could not build a movement from the grassroots. They said we could not win.”
“But we did it, y’all,” said Cabán, who is on track to become the first openly queer district attorney of Queens.
While Cabán’s establishment-backed opponent Melinda Katz—the Queens borough president who benefited from a torrent of campaign cash from the real estate industry—did not concede defeat Tuesday night, Cabán’s campaign expressed confidence that the remaining ballots will not be enough to swing the election.
As of this writing, Cabán is ahead by just over 1,000 votes with 99 percent of precincts reporting. If Cabán wins, she is heavily favored to defeat Republican Daniel Kogan in the November general election.
“I am a 31-year-old, queer Latina public defender whose parents grew up in the Woodside Housing projects,” Cabán said Tuesday night. “And I decided to run. I ran because for too long, too many communities in Queens hadn’t had a fair shot in our criminal-justice system.”
Cabán’s apparent primary victory was described as an “earthshaking political upset” and immediately drew comparisons to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) stunning win last year over powerful Wall Street-backed Rep. Joe Crowley.
Crowley, who is now a lobbyist, backed Katz with funds from his campaign committee while Ocasio-Cortez joined other progressive lawmakers and activists in supporting Cabán, who used her campaign ads to rail against the “corrupt Queens political machine” that “get[s] rich off foreclosures.”
“When people come together, we can beat big money in elections,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted after Cabán declared victory just before midnight Tuesday. “People power is no fluke.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate who also endorsed Cabán, celebrated the progressive public defender’s apparent win as “a victory for working people everywhere who are fighting for real political change and demanding we end cash bail, mass incarceration, and the failed war on drugs.”
“Tiffany Cabán took on virtually the entire political establishment,” Sanders tweeted, “and built a grassroots movement.”
“We built a campaign to reduce recidivism. Decriminalize poverty. End mass incarceration. To protect our immigrant communities. Keep people rooted in their communities with the access to support and services.”
Writing for The Nation, New York-based journalist Ross Barkan called Cabán’s victory over an opponent who had overwhelming establishment support “another shocking blow to the Queens Democratic machine.”
“Cabán’s startling performance may not only redefine criminal justice reform but also New York’s once-ossified, hierarchical political scene,” Barkan wrote. “Bold leftists are ascendant, with groups like the Democratic Socialists of America evolving from a curiosity to a preeminent vote-getting force in the city.”
“Cabán campaigned as a ‘decarceral’ prosecutor, promising to oppose the construction of new jails, end cash bail, decriminalize sex work, and put far fewer people in prison,” Barkan continued. “Two prominent progressive prosecutors, Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner and Boston’s Rachael Rollins, backed Cabán, signaling that New York could join both cities as a leader in a movement that has sought to undo the damage of mass incarceration.”
In a series of tweets Tuesday night, Cabán said she is prepared to fight for transformative change to the criminal justice system as the top prosecutor of Queens, a borough with a population of over two million people.
“We built a campaign to reduce recidivism. Decriminalize poverty. End mass incarceration. To protect our immigrant communities. Keep people rooted in their communities with the access to support and services,” Cabán wrote. “Transforming this system will not be easy, and it will not happen overnight. But I am ready. We are ready.”