QUEENS, N.Y. ― In a stunning show of force for the political left, Tiffany Cabán, a queer Latina public defender backed by progressive elected officials and activists, held a small lead in the Democratic primary for Queens district attorney over establishment favorite and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz with 99% of precincts recorded. The race is too close to call.
When Cabán came to the microphone to address supporters at La Boom nightclub in the Woodside neighborhood, she seemed coy, but she cautiously declared a symbolic victory, at least.
“They said we could not win,” she said. “But we did it, y’all.”
She began thanking her campaign staff, then community organizers that backed her, then politicians who backed her, all by name. As the speech meandered, and NY1 screens showed her lead holding, she grew more confident, officially claiming victory: “Tonight, we won the primary for the Queens district attorney’s office.”
Accolades for Cabán poured in from her supporters across the country.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, declared her win a “victory not just for the people of Queens, but 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.”
Katz did not concede, however, and may dispute the vote totals. The outcome of the contest, which drew national attention, may not be known for some time.
If the city government certifies Cabán’s victory she will become the youngest ever DA in New York City and the city’s first Latina and openly queer person to occupy the top prosecutor role.
In her victory speech Tuesday night, Cabán nodded both to the historic nature of her rise from humble roots.
“A public defender whose parents grew up in the Woodside housing projects, and I decided to run,” she told the roaring crowd of supporters. “I ran because for too long, too many communities in Queens haven’t had a fair shot in our criminal justice system.”
She also sought to assure the diverse borough’s 2.3 million residents that her plans to reshape the DA’s office would enhance rather than undermine public safety.
“The changes we are fighting for will mean a fairer, more equitable, more efficient criminal justice system,” she said. “And that doesn’t come at the cost of safety, That is the source of safety.”
Jimmy Van Bramer, one of the first Queens Democrats on the City Council to endorse Cabán, said he was “confident” the recount would confirm victory for the member of the Democratic Socialists of America.
“Everything changes with this victory,” Van Bramer said amid a dancing crowd. “A 31-year-old queer Latina DSA member won the borough of Queens. That is an astounding and formerly unthinkable thing that happened tonight.”
State Sen. Mike Gianaris, the Queens Democrat dubbed the “Amazon slayer” for his role in halting the tech giant’s plans to build a taxpayer-incentivized headquarters in Long Island City, said he’s “never seen a margin over 1,000 votes close on paper,” calling the victory “pretty secure.”
“The next DA is going to be Tiffany Cabán,” he said. “That said, we have to go through the process.”
As polls remained too close to call, NY1 began playing Katz’s address to supporters at her party. Organizers at the Woodside nightclub where the Cabán campaign gathered, played the speech over loudspeakers as the crowd booed.
The uncertainty of Cabán’s win did little to dampen spirits at her party, though the crowd seemed drained after hours of nervously watching results.
“It was a nail-biter all right,” Morry Galonoy, 50, a Parsons School of Design professor from Woodside, said as he danced with friends. “But no matter the outcome, we would have won because we pushed the conversation in the right direction.”
Bruce Gyory, a policy consultant and adjunct professor at State University of New York, Albany, called the close margin a sign of the political tumult gripping the borough.
“Queens County is in a real mode of transition between what used to drive outcomes there and a newer dynamic,” he said.
For more on Cabán’s campaign for district attorney, see HuffPost’s previous coverage here.