Queens, New York, has come a long way since the 1970s, when Archie Bunker personified the borough on millions of television screens, and a young real estate developer named Donald Trump prowled the area hawking apartments ― though not if you were black.
But Queens politics still remain colored by the cautious instincts of middle-class homeowners of all races, and that has guided the borough’s law enforcement apparatus to more of a hard-knuckled, law-and-order approach than one might expect in a majority-minority jurisdiction of 2.3 million people. Richard Brown became Queens district attorney in 1991, and served almost 30 years until his retirement in January. He was a living relic of the days when New York City was wracked with crime, and in search of punitive DAs who would get “tough” on criminals.
Throughout 2018, the Queens DA’s office jailed more people for low-level “misdemeanor” crimes like prostitution and drug possession than any other borough, despite also having the lowest overall arrest rate per capita.
Tiffany Cabán wants to radically change all that. She’s a 31-year-old public defender living on her savings in order to mount an underdog bid for Queens DA. If elected in the Democratic primary next Tuesday ― the general election in Queens is a virtual formality ― Cabán would be New York City’s first Latina and first queer district attorney.
Cabán wants to serve as a “decarceral prosecutor” ― a DA with a mission to reduce the borough’s jail populations ― who would transform the Queens DA’s office from a clubby, conservative outlier to the vanguard of the national criminal justice reform movement.
The impact of Cabán’s candidacy is already pushing the national debate on incarceration leftward. When Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) endorsed her on Wednesday, they were obligated to take a stance on Cabán’s plan to decriminalize sex work. Both senators, who voted for an anti-trafficking bill that consensual sex workers say undermined their safety, said they were open to decriminalization for the first time. They join rival Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who went further in February, unequivocally embracing decriminalization.
In addition to decriminalizing sex work, Cabán would not prosecute low-level offenses like marijuana possession and subway turnstile jumping. She would also bar use of cash bail in all cases.
With the resources freed up by not targeting low-level crimes, Cabán says she would instead focus on prosecuting unscrupulous landlords, predatory lenders, exploitative employers ― and law enforcement officers accused of brutality. The latter category would include federal immigration agents.
“Just like our police officers have to be held accountable, you don’t get to hide behind a badge, whether it’s a state or federal badge,” Cabán told a voter in Astoria in late May, her home neighborhood and one of the borough’s most liberal areas.
But the stance that distinguishes Cabán most from her rivals is the one that poses the greatest potential political risks for her. She is a skeptic of incarceration as a prosecutorial tool altogether ― even in the case of violent crimes.
Cabán wants to “start looking at violent crime and saying, ‘Hey, we need to take some similar approaches in saying our goal is to change behavior,’ because 97, 98% of the time when someone goes into a jail or a prison, they re-enter their community at some point,” she told HuffPost. “Are you putting them in a position to not re-offend?”
She can envision an American society in the future where prison is truly a last resort and looks more like the rehabilitative approach typical in Nordic countries.
In that world, prisons would be “more like transitional housing, places where people can earn a minimum wage, have access to health care and education opportunities, because jails and prisons as they exist here ― in the United States for sure ― are not places where” people can improve their lives.
“A Cabán victory in a place like Queens ... would demonstrate a dramatic realignment inside the Democratic electorate on criminal justice.”
Cabán’s perspective is informed by her work representing low-income criminal defendants.
A client of hers kept getting sent to prison for longer and longer sentences, because he got into fights. She remembers an assistant DA telling her that the man needed to realize hitting people is wrong. That kind of analysis fundamentally misunderstands human behavior, she argued.
“I kind of make it personal with a district attorney sometimes, and say, ‘What’s different between what [my client is] doing in these situations and what I would have done is the fact that my dad got a union gig and I got access to health care and so that meant I got to go to therapy,’” she said. (Cabán’s father belonged to a union of elevator mechanics.)
Although rethinking penalties for violent crime was once a political “third rail” for criminal justice reformers, there is a rising consensus that it is essential to addressing the United States’ high rates of incarceration, according to David Alan Sklansky, a criminal law professor at Stanford University.
“There’s a growing recognition that the line between nonviolent offenses and violent offenses is a fuzzy one,” because of the way criminalization of things like drugs and sex work can promote violence, Sklansky said. “Saying that we’re interested in reforming the way we deal with crime, but only if it’s a nonviolent offense, can be a recipe for ensuring that we don’t make a dent in mass incarceration or the overall footprint of the criminal justice system.”
A Local Race Draws In National Players
Democratically elected local prosecutors, commonly but not always known as district attorneys, were for decades the sleepy province of party machines. Competition was rare; diversity even rarer. As of 2015, 95 percent of them were white, 83 percent were men, and just 1 percent were women of color.
But amid a growing bipartisan recognition that harsh policing and sentencing policies have harmed the country’s most vulnerable communities, progressive activists and donors have turned their attention to the consequential-but-hitherto ignored DA elections.
Among the movement’s highest-profile successes to date have been the elections of Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Kim Foxx in Chicago, Rachael Rollins in Boston and Wesley Bell in St. Louis.
Electing one of their own in a jurisdiction of Queens’ size would be a plum prize for the coalition of left-leaning activists plowing resources into prosecutor races. If Queens were its own city, it would be bigger than Philadelphia and about the same size as Houston.
“Let’s be clear: Queens is not Brooklyn. It’s an extremely diverse borough with a more conservative ethic that focuses on quality of life issues,” said Bill Lipton, head of the New York Working Families Party, which is backing Cabán. “A Cabán victory in a place like Queens ... would demonstrate a dramatic realignment inside the Democratic electorate on criminal justice.”
The prospect of that realignment has drawn a host of local and national progressive figures to Cabán’s side.
What began as a trickle of those high-profile endorsements became a flood when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) announced her support for Cabán in late May. She was followed by, among others, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, a likely mayoral candidate in 2021; Boston DA Rollins; The New York Times editorial board; and most recently, Warren and Sanders.
Cabán’s most formidable opponent is Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, a veteran of local politics who previously served in the state Assembly and New York City council. She enjoys the greatest level of institutional support, including from influential labor unions and key players in the Queens Democratic Party machine.
“Now the chips are in the middle of the table.”
Chief among the latter is Rep. Gregory Meeks, former Rep. Joseph Crowley’s successor as chairman of the Queens County Democratic Party and a force in the predominantly African-American sections of southeast Queens. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) endorsed Katz earlier this month and held a fundraiser for her.
The rival factions arrayed in Cabán and Katz’s rival camps have turned the primary into a de-facto sequel to Ocasio-Cortez’s primary win over Crowley ― and a proxy fight for the ideological tug-of-war happening in the national party.
Whether Ocasio-Cortez wants it to be or not, the race is now a test of her reach outside the liberal confines of gentrifying northwestern Queens. A win or near-win for Cabán could solidify Ocasio-Cortez’s status as a disruptive force in New York City politics, while a tough loss would signal the staying power of the Queens machine.
Meeks, sensing the momentum Cabán was gaining, lashed out this week with the anger of a machine boss in danger of losing his grip on power.
He accused Sanders and Warren of racial insensitivity for failing to consult the borough’s black elected officials, who with just one exception, have lined up behind Katz.
“African American voters are tired of the patronizing and tired of the arrogance,” Meeks said in a Wednesday statement.
Cabán’s campaign continued apace on Thursday though, nabbing the endorsement of state Sen. James Sanders ― that sole black Queens official who had yet to endorse Katz.
“Now the chips are in the middle of the table,” said Bruce Gyory, a policy consultant and adjunct professor at SUNY Albany. Ocasio-Cortez or Meeks “is likely to have bragging rights as the kingmaker.”
Victim Of The Reform Movement’s Success?
Although Cabán is the contender most committed to upending the status quo, she is locked in an uphill battle for the open post. In Tuesday’s primary, she is due to face off against six competitors: Katz; New York City Councilman Rory Lancman; 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.
Virtually every candidate in the field is calling, to one degree or another, to steer the DA’s office in a kinder, gentler direction.
Lancman, in particular, has sought the progressive mantle, touting the endorsement of Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, whose July 2014 death in a police chokehold sparked widespread outrage. When Lancman entered the race way back in September, he vowed to be New York City’s very own “Larry Krasner.”
Unfortunately for Lancman, Krasner endorsed Cabán earlier this month, and has since returned to the borough to campaign for her. And as if to vindicate Kranser’s judgment that Cabán is the authentic reformer in the race, Lancman dropped out Friday and endorsed Katz, whose reform credentials he repeatedly questioned during the primary. (At a candidate debate in May, Lancman said that he and Cabán are the “only two genuine criminal justice reformers.”)
Lasak, the only contender to publicly seek the New York City Police Benevolent Association’s endorsement, seems to be the candidate most at ease with traditional law-and-order policies.
His 25 years as a Queens assistant district attorney earned the New York Daily News’ endorsement this month, and his name recognition, gruff folksiness and old-school prosecutorial approach could win over voters who remember the borough’s more violent, crime-ridden years.
“Getting this wrong will bring national attention to the criminal justice reform movement.”
Buoyed by her name recognition and influential backers, Katz initially sought to downplay her differences with Cabán, claiming that she was as committed to rolling back prosecutorial excesses as the fresh reformer.
But Cabán and her allies have taken to contrasting her consistency with more recent arrivals to the criminal justice reform cause.
As Cabán’s bid has picked up steam, thanks to the endorsements but also a viral video advertisement trashing Katz, the Queens borough president has switched gears, casting about for a negative tack that will stick.
In an interview with HuffPost earlier this month, Katz, 53, painted Cabán as a well-intentioned rookie, whose lack of experience risked failing to balance reforms with the day-to-day responsibilities of an office that’s gone unchanged for nearly three decades. That, Katz said, could threaten to slow the national momentum the movement to elect progressive prosecutors has gained since Krasner’s election in 2017.
“You can’t bring those changes to a 530-person office unless you have the experience to actually manage,” Katz said. “Getting this wrong will bring national attention to the criminal justice reform movement.”
Since then, Katz has complemented the talking point with campaign literature that characterizes Cabán’s efforts to reduce incarceration as “too extreme.”
Cabán “claims we don’t need jails ever” and “thinks we can ‘rehabilitate’ those who commit heinous hate crimes,” the palm card states. (In fact, Cabán does not rule out incarceration for violent offenses; she would seek alternatives first.)
Final approval rests with the borough’s voters. On the unseasonably hot Sunday in Astoria when HuffPost trailed Cabán on her canvassing route, she found a mostly receptive audience that knew little about the DA race. But the experience of seeing Trump administration officials refusing to comply with congressional subpoenas had hammered home for Tess Fischer, a retired corporate public relations executive, the double standard in the criminal justice system.
Fischer was lounging with friends on the patio of her home when Cabán approached, sporting a blue suit and white-soled brown wingtips. “It would be nice to see the laws applied equitably across the board and not selectively,” Fischer said. “Like so if you defy a subpoena you get sent away ― that should apply to [Attorney General Bill] Barr and to [Treasury Secretary Steve] Mnuchin.”
After Cabán left, Fischer told HuffPost that she appreciated the upstart DA contender’s articulate pitch, and wanted to know whether Katz was affiliated with Crowley.
“It’s time for them all to go,” she declared.
This has been updated after Lancman announced he was withdrawing from the DA race.