Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) endorsed Tiffany Cabán’s bid for district attorney of Queens on Wednesday, lending national heft to an underdog candidate trying to bring sweeping criminal justice reform to New York City’s second largest borough.
“Our criminal justice system needs to change. New Yorkers deserve a seat at the table, and a champion who will fight to realign our priorities towards equal treatment under the law,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement. “If Tiffany Cabán wins, things are going to change.”
Although Queens, a diverse borough of 2.3 million, is reliably Democratic, its DA’s office remains a vestige of tough-on-crime policies that other New York boroughs, to say nothing of other cities, have bypassed.
When Richard Brown, who served virtually uncontested as Queens DA for over 27 years, announced he would not seek re-election in January, it set off a scramble to succeed him. (Brown, 86, died earlier this month of complications from Parkinson’s disease, weeks shy of his scheduled exit.)
Seven candidates are competing for the Democratic DA nomination in a June 25 primary ― all of them promising, to one degree or another, to relax the hard-line practices that Brown first implemented during a period of high crime. In such solidly Democratic territory, the general election is almost certain to be a formality.
But Cabán, a queer Latina public defense attorney, is campaigning on what would be the cleanest break with the office’s past and the aging political machine that sustains it.
This is how movements are built. Rebecca Katz, progressive strategist
She has said she would bar the use of cash bail for all crimes, and would decline to prosecute sex workers and their clients, as well as low-level offenses like marijuana possession and subway fare evasion. She promises to focus instead on predatory lenders, exploitative employers and pharmaceutical companies that have contributed to the opioid epidemic.
In addition to her ambitious policy proposals, Cabán, who at 31 is a contemporary of the 29-year-old Ocasio-Cortez, is taking on some of the most powerful figures in Queens politics.
Her most formidable rival in the DA race is Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, an ally of former Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), whom Ocasio-Cortez ousted in a Democratic primary last year. Katz has the endorsement of Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), Crowley’s successor as chair of the Queens County Democratic Party; Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.); and New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D).
The other contenders for the top law enforcement spot are New York City Councilman Rory Lancman (D); Mina Malik, a former Queens and Brooklyn prosecutor and deputy attorney general for the District of Columbia; Greg Lasak, a former judge and prosecutor in Brown’s office; attorney Betty Lugo; and Jose Nieves, a former prosecutor in the New York attorney general’s office.
For her part, Cabán already has the backing of some of the city’s ascendant progressive players and organizations, including state Sen. Jessica Ramos (D), City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, the New York City Democratic Socialists of America, the New York Working Families Party and the Make the Road Action Fund.
But Ocasio-Cortez brings to the table unparalleled influence as a social media star and grassroots fundraiser. She posted a fundraising appeal for Cabán on Facebook on Wednesday afternoon and plans to tap her email list for money later this week.
“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a progressive champion, a fearless warrior for working people, and an inspiration for women of color running for office across the country,” Cabán said in a statement. “I’m honored to have her endorsement.”
Critics of the criminal justice policies that have given the U.S. the world’s highest incarceration rate have begun putting major resources into local prosecutors’ races.
These reformers have a mixed record overall, but have posted major wins in some of the country’s largest cities, including Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago. Prosecutors in those offices have, to varying degrees, pursued alternatives to incarceration, curbed policies like cash bail that discriminate against low-income residents, and treated allegations of law enforcement abuse more seriously.
Cabán’s election could add major momentum to the national movement for a less punitive, more balanced approach to crime prevention. If Queens were a city of its own, it would dwarf Philadelphia in population and approach the size of Houston, the fourth largest city in the U.S.
“It’s an opportunity for the entire country,” said New York Assemblyman Ron Kim (D), who represents Flushing, Queens, and has yet to endorse in the DA race. “I mean, this is New York City. You get a transformative DA who’s talking about not criminalizing poverty, it could set an entire tone.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement could also have far-reaching political consequences, as she tries to steer New York City away from top-down machine politics and closer to her brand of grassroots progressivism.
“The machine is moribund and has lost a great deal of influence,” said Doug Muzzio, a New York politics specialist at Baruch College in Manhattan. “The criminal justice system is the last bastion of the machines.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of Cabán is only the second she has given since taking office in January, and the first in her native New York. Earlier this month, she endorsed Raul Fernandez’s bid for the Select Board of Brookline, Massachusetts. Fernandez, who Ocasio-Cortez knew from her time at Boston University, won his race.
But between her June primary win and the general election in November, Ocasio-Cortez traveled the country stumping for long-shot progressive candidates, a mere handful of whom prevailed.
“Even though she is a long shot, should Tiffany lose after Ocasio-Cortez works hard on her behalf, it takes some of the luster off [Ocasio-Cortez] because people say she couldn’t transfer her influence,” Muzzio said.
However, he added, “the upside is greater for Ocasio-Cortez because Cabán’s not expected to win.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s commitment to building alternative sources of political power ― and to her ideals, regardless of the political consequences ― is one of the things that distinguishes her as an elected official, according to Rebecca Katz, a New York City-based progressive strategist.
“This is how movements are built. It’s not just about winning elections, it’s about elevating new voices,” Katz said.
An upset win for Cabán would both signal and increase Ocasio-Cortez’s power as a kingmaker and disruptive force in New York City politics.
“A lot of the incumbents would be terrified if you had two anti-establishment, young women of color leading the borough,” Katz said. “That’s sending shockwaves through the political system.”
This article has been updated to include Muzzio’s remarks.