Tiffany Cabán Upends Politics As Usual in Queens
At the Queens County Criminal Courts Building, arraignments take place in the basement, and, late on Tuesday afternoon, the usual scene was unfolding there. Officers whisked in one person after another to stand before the judge; all of them had been arrested within the past twenty-four hours, and all appeared dishevelled and exhausted. One older man had on a sleeveless black T-shirt that read “BE FREE”; a young man wore a hospital bracelet and gown, his back bare except where the gown was tied together. Many of their alleged offenses were relatively minor—harassment, misdemeanor assault—and the judge set most of them free. But, in cases where bail was set, the accused were taken to a holding cell in the back, where they waited to be bailed out—or taken to jail.
Whenever prosecutors asked the judge to set bail, they would say, “The People request a thousand-dollar bail,” or a “ten-thousand-dollar bail,” or another dollar amount. It was always “the People” because the District Attorney—and the prosecutors who work in the D.A.’s office—theoretically represent the people of Queens. But, over the past several months, the campaign for the borough’s next D.A. has prompted a vigorous debate over what exactly “the People” want, transforming a seemingly obscure political contest into a national story. Tuesday was the Democratic primary for D.A., but the only sign in this courtroom that change was coming was a sticker one public defender wore that read “I voted!”
For twenty-eight years, a Democrat named Richard Brown held the position of Queens District Attorney, maintaining a tough-on-crime approach from an earlier era of urban law enforcement. The borough became known as the city’s “misdemeanor incarceration capital,” because so many people accused of misdemeanors were sent to jail. As a new wave of “progressive prosecutors” has taken office across the country, the seven candidates who entered the race to succeed Brown debated the question of how the office should be reformed. Melinda Katz, the Queens borough president, who was considered the frontrunner, embraced many progressive reforms, but Tiffany Cabán, a thirty-one-year-old public defender, proposed the most sweeping changes. She pledged to stop prosecuting many crimes (including sex work, trespassing, and disorderly conduct) and to eliminate cash bail. She eschewed the term “progressive prosecutor” in favor of another term: “decarceral prosecutor.”
Cabán announced her candidacy in January, won the endorsement of the New York City chapter of the D.S.A., and, in April, secured the endorsement of the Working Families Party, which paid for a campaign manager and other staffers. She was considered a long-shot candidate, though, until a moment in late May when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the congresswoman whose upset victory last fall stunned the Queens Democratic establishment, endorsed her, asking her own supporters to send in three-dollar contributions. On June 6th, Larry Krasner, the Philadelphia D.A., who has received national attention for his reform efforts, came to Queens to announce his support. The New York Times endorsed Cabán on June 18th, and, the next day, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders followed suit. Cabán already had some three hundred volunteers, but, in the four days leading up to the primary, that number rose to fourteen hundred. Her last-minute donors included Laurene Powell Jobs, who gave five thousand dollars the day before the election. The campaign ran commercials on cable television and advertised on sidewalk kiosks across the borough, particularly in western Queens, where Ocasio-Cortez had prevailed.
On the morning of Election Day, Cabán went to a polling place near her home, in Astoria, with two close friends, Divya Sundaram and Stephanie Silkowski, who had convinced her to run, eight months earlier. Later that night, they headed to her Election Night watch party, at a night club in Woodside called La Boom, which calls itself the city’s “#1 Latin Dance Party.” More than seven hundred people showed up. There was Krasner, who had travelled from Philadelphia with a security detail—two plainclothes police officers—in his red Tesla. There was Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn College professor and the author of “The End of Policing,” who had brought along a friend, a judge from Texas named Franklin Bynum. (Last year, Bynum was one of two D.S.A. members who won judgeships in Houston. If Cabán won, Bynum declared, she would be “the first D.S.A. D.A.”) There was Jeff Deskovic, who endured sixteen years in prison after he was wrongly convicted; five years ago, a jury awarded him forty million dollars, and a week before the election he contributed three thousand dollars to Cabán’s campaign.
Six screens aired Spectrum News NY-1, and at first they showed that Cabán was in second place, trailing Katz. But, before long, the numbers shifted, and Cabán gained a slight lead. The crowd screamed, and, every time Cabán’s numbers ticked up a bit, the crowd screamed again. “Tiff-a-ny! Tiff-a-ny!” When a NY-1 reporter tried to interview Krasner, and his face appeared on the screens, the crowd began hollering again: “Larry! Larry! Larry!” During breaks in the chants, people hunched over their cell phones, checking the Board of Elections Web site for the most up-to-date results. At about 9:20 P.M., Cabán held a lead of two percentage points, with two-thirds of the precincts reporting results. Half an hour later, her lead had shrunk to less than one point, but by then the votes in ninety per cent of precincts had been tallied.
Eventually, the screens showed that Cabán was ahead by a little more than a thousand votes with ninety-nine percent of the precincts reporting. With so many bodies crammed together, the room had grown sweaty, but the news prompted the crowd to shriek and holler, fists punching the air. Soon after 11 P.M., Cabán appeared behind the podium, and supporters held up their cell phones to film her. “What’s up y’all?” she said—and the crowd cheered again. She ran through all the reasons she was not expected to win. “They said I was too young.”
“They said I didn’t look like a D.A.”
“They said we could not build a movement from the grass roots!”
“They said we could not win, but we did it, y’all!”
Katz had already spoken to her supporters at her Election Night party, at Banter Irish Bar, in Forest Hills, but she had not conceded defeat. There were more than three thousand ballots yet to be counted; the final tally would have to wait another week. But, as far as the crowd at La Boom was concerned, Cabán was the victor. After she finished her speech, the d.j. turned up the music. The crowd appeared both euphoric and stunned. Some supporters started to dance; others walked around in a daze. It seemed almost impossible to imagine that in Queens, the land of Archie Bunker and the home town of Donald J. Trump, the most powerful law-enforcement official might actually turn out to be Tiffany Cabán.
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The race is not officially over, and, even if Cabán is declared the primary winner, she will have to run again in the general election, in November, though in Queens the winner of the Democratic primary typically prevails. If Cabán is sworn in as the next District Attorney, she may find that, no matter how hard it was to win this election, actually delivering on her promises will be far more difficult. The job of the Queens D.A. is very different from the job of Ocasio-Cortez and other members of Congress. The Queens D.A. oversees a huge bureaucracy with more than seven hundred employees; last year, the office handled more than forty-five thousand arrests. As other newly elected progressive prosecutors have learned, a new D.A. can write any policy she wants and e-mail it to the entire staff, but that does not insure that everyone will follow it.
At the Philadelphia D.A.’s office, in the months after Krasner took over, tensions grew so intense that new employees would find themselves stepping into an office elevator packed with co-workers only to have everyone else stop talking. An anonymous Twitter account began chronicling the inner workings of the office, mocking Krasner and broadcasting his new employees’ missteps. The same day as the election in Queens, The Appeal published a story in which advocates criticized Krasner for not reforming his bail policies more quickly and expansively.
At Cabán’s party, though, nobody was in a skeptical mood. Supporters hugged one another, danced onstage, and ripped Cabán posters off the walls to take home as souvenirs. The music was so loud that conversation was virtually impossible, but Thomas Hoffman, a seventy-five-year-old lawyer, was not in a rush to leave. He had been on his feet since 9 A.M., campaigning for Cabán outside a polling site in Kew Gardens, near the Queens County Criminal Courts Building. His determination to help elect Cabán had its origins in a day in 2004 when he received a letter from a man in prison named Kareem Bellamy. Ten years earlier, Bellamy had been arrested in Queens for murder, but he insisted that he was innocent. Hoffman agreed to represent him, spent seven years working pro bono on his case, and got him exonerated.
Ever since, Hoffman has been receiving letters from people in prison asking for his help. He had spent years trying to draw attention to the cases of other people whom he believed were wrongly convicted, but the Queens D.A.’s office had no wrongful-conviction unit; he could not find anyone to listen to his concerns. “There are so many cases I had that, if there was an independent inquiry, they’d be walking the streets today,” he said. It was a long and lonely crusade, but now here he was, staring up at a television screen with the election results, surrounded by twenty- and thirtysomethings who had helped propel the campaign of a young woman who promised to transform the D.A.’s office. Long after Cabán left the stage, Hoffman still seemed to be in shock. “Can you believe this?” he said. He walked around the dance floor, shaking his head. “These young kids did this,” he said, surveying the crowd. “It is unbelievable.”