Tiffany Cabán just may have completed what was deemed unthinkable mere months ago: The 31-year-old public defender who identifies as a queer Latina has claimed victory in the Democratic primary for Queens district attorney, further shaking up the political makeup of a borough that just one year ago saw Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset an entrenched congressional incumbent in Joe Crowley.
With more than 99.5 percent of the precincts reporting, Cabán was ahead of her closest rival, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, by just under 1,100 out of more than 85,000 votes cast.
According to election officials, roughly 3,400 absentee ballots are yet to count, but that will not take place until next week. Even assuming the other five candidates in the race won no absentees votes, Katz would still have to best Cabán by roughly two to one to reverse Cabán’s lead.
On election night, however, Katz suggested that she might seek a recount, which would be triggered if the margin of victory were one percent or less. Cabán currently enjoys a 1.3 percent lead, but if Katz were able to whittle that lead by about 300 votes, she could find herself in the one-percent zone she hopes for.
Cabán claimed victory, telling her supporters shortly after 11 p.m., “Tonight, we won the Queens district attorney’s office.”
In a speech where she methodically acknowledged her numerous supporters, Cabán said, “We have built the most powerful, the most diverse, the most beautiful coalition that a borough-wide race has ever seen. From formerly incarcerated folks to sex workers to undocumented immigrants to community-based organizations and activists to local and national elected officials.”
She added, “I want to be very clear: Nothing is more important to me than the safety of all the people who call this borough home.”
Cabán, if her claim of victory holds up, would enjoy a huge advantage in the heavily Democratic borough against the only Republican contender to emerge, attorney Daniel Kogan. If elected in November, Cabán would achieve a series of firsts: as the first woman, the first LGBTQ person, and the first Latinx person to be elected Queens DA.
Cabán’s ascendance in the primary contest in one of the nation’s most populous counties has undoubtedly sent shock waves through the law enforcement community with her campaign vows to end mass incarceration, decriminalize poverty, wipe out racist law enforcement, and stop a war on drugs that has unfairly targeted communities of color. Perhaps most notably, she has played a key role in injecting life into the emerging movement to decriminalize sex work through her pledge to avoid prosecuting sex workers, clients, and those who facilitate the sex trade.
The primary election drew wide attention locally and nationally, partly because there had not been a change in the office since the late Richard Brown, who died earlier this year, took over in 1991. Cabán, down the stretch, captured the endorsements of two major Democratic presidential candidates — Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — showing that the public defender had gained significant steam.
Cabán, by all means a political outsider when she entered the race, earned support from LGBTQ folks of all walks of life. Her supporters ranged from members of DecrimNY — the coalition to decriminalize sex work — to elected officials like out gay City Councilmembers Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens and Carlos Menchaca of Brooklyn. Cynthia Nixon, the LGBTQ former gubernatorial candidate, also threw her support behind Cabán.
LGBTQ folks also showed strong visible support for Cabán at Queens Pride in early June in what was a clear sign that her campaign was on the rise. Queer-based groups like the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club and the LGBTQ Victory Fund endorsed Cabán, though the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City and the Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club of Queens backed Katz.
Katz entered the race as the more established candidate after having already won multiple races for borough president, even as she lacked courtroom experience — an area where Cabán had the edge. Katz, though, also had much deeper political roots, after serving stints in the State Assembly and the City Council, where she chaired the powerful Land Use Committee.
In a sign of the proxy battle pitting establishment forces against progressive upstarts, Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Cabán while Crowley threw his support behind Katz. Both Ocasio-Cortez and Crowley fired out emails encouraging their supporters to side with their respective candidates.
On an important issue facing LGBTQ people, especially trans women of color, there were clear differences between the two top candidates. Cabán pushed to broadly decriminalize sex work, while Katz expressed hesitation on going all-out. Notably, however, both Cabán and Katz answered “yes” in a Jim Owles questionnaire when asked whether they believed in the legalization of sex work. Sex work advocates are opposed to legalization because workers could face extra hurdles brought on by a highly regulated system.
The candidates also diverged on the future of the DA’s office regarding cash bail — another issue facing the LGBTQ community. Cabán long pushed to end the current system of cash bail that perpetuates an unfair class divide in which the less fortunate can toil behind bars for long periods of time. Cabán told Gay City News in an April interview that one of her trans clients who could not afford bail was suffering health consequences because she was not able to take hormones.
Tensions flared during a NY1 debate in June when Katz stated that her office would “have no cash bail,” a position that both Cabán and Councilmember Rory Lancman, who last week dropped out of the race, said was new. Previously, Katz had distributed palm cards saying she would merely eliminate cash bail for low-level offenses.
The moment was representative of a common theme throughout the campaign: That Katz was often scrambling to adjust her stances based on what was politically satisfactory. That was also evident in a debate when candidates were discussing jails: Cabán had long said, “When you build new jails, you fill them,” but in that debate, Katz appeared to copy her, saying, “If they build them, they will fill them up.”
Cabán’s apparent victory likely will erase any doubt that Ocasio-Cortez’s triumph one year before was some sort of fluke. At a time when the federal government — led by an inexperienced, racist homophobe who lies on a daily basis — is launching repeated attacks against marginalized groups, Democrats in the borough turned to a queer Latina woman who says she will address problems facing working class people and take a more holistic approach to criminal justice.