Home / General / How You Move Politics to the Left, Part Two

How You Move Politics to the Left, Part Two


Let me build on Scott’s post from earlier today to talk about the amazing victory of Tiffany Cabán in Queens.

Tiffany Cabán, the 31-year-old public defender endorsed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is on the verge of a stunning upset in a Queens district-attorney’s race that could dramatically impact the direction of criminal-justice reform in America.

With 98 percent of the vote reported, Cabán held a razor-thin 1,229-vote lead over Melinda Katz, the borough president backed by the same Queens Democratic machine that Ocasio-Cortez crushed one year ago. Katz has refused to concede, waiting for absentee votes to be counted.

Cabán’s startling performance may not only redefine criminal-justice reform but also New York’s once-ossified, hierarchical political scene. Bold leftists are ascendant, with groups like the Democratic Socialists of America evolving from a curiosity to a preeminent vote-getting force in the city.

Cabán’s platform was unapologetically progressive in a borough that was once defined by Archie Bunker, the irascible conservative of All in the Family fame. Cabán campaigned as a “decarceral” prosecutor, promising to oppose the construction of new jails, end cash bail, decriminalize sex work, and put far fewer people in prison. Richard Brown, the longtime Queens DA who died in May, was her polar opposite, a tough-on-crime ex-judge who continued to prosecute low-level offenses like turnstile hopping and refused to set up an internal unit to review wrongful convictions.

Two prominent progressive prosecutors, Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner and Boston’s Rachael Rollins, backed Cabán, signaling that New York could join both cities as a leader in a movement that has sought to undo the damage of mass incarceration. Krasner attended Cabán’s election-night party, where chants like “Black lives matter!” and “People power!” erupted throughout the night.

As crime continues to fall nationally, prosecutors are seeking new metrics to measure success. Just as Krasner, a former public defender, became a trendsetter two years ago, a District Attorney Cabán could be a lodestar for big-city prosecutors everywhere. Two of her most famous endorsers, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have already said they are open to decriminalizing sex work.

“Is everyone ready for transformational justice?” asked State Senator Jessica Ramos, a Queens lawmaker who was one of Cabán’s most enthusiastic backers. “Are you emotionally prepared for a new district attorney?”

Queens is a county of over 2 million people, big enough to be one of the five largest cities in America. Brown held the office since 1991. A competitive election for the incredibly powerful post had not been waged in over a half-century.

If Cabán’s lead holds, she could face bitter resistance from the entrenched forces she ran against. Law-enforcement unions aggressively backed a third candidate in the race, Greg Lasak, and rank-and-file police could bristle at cooperating with such a progressive district attorney. Real-estate interests backed Katz to the hilt, as did the city’s largest labor unions. The Queens DA’s office has around 700 employees; to implement the change she promises, Cabán—who has no executive-level experience—may have to purge many of the line prosecutors.

“At the end of the day, I’ve always maintained, and continue to maintain, that this, ladies and gentlemen, is a serious job,” Katz said Tuesday night, in a clear dig at Cabán.

Cabán’s ascent was remarkably quick. She announced her campaign in January and was relatively unknown several months after. The DSA was an early endorser, along with advocates of criminal-justice reform who were seeking an alternative to Katz, a politician who has held office almost continuously since the 1990s. Progressive groups like the Working Families Party lent additional organizational muscle.

On election day, hundreds of volunteers, many with DSA, knocked on doors, canvassed subway stations, and surrounded polling sites. Shortly before the polls closed, Cabán led a jubilant march through Jackson Heights, one of her strongholds.

“This proves how wrong people were to minimize how significant Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory was,” said Susan Kang, a Queens DSA member and political-science professor who volunteered for both women. “Grassroots campaigns can and will be as powerful as institutional-based campaigns.”

DSA deserves a ton of credit here. The proper position in regards electoral politics is that candidates should be as far left as a district will allow. In West Virginia, that might actually be Joe Manchin. In Queens, it should be the reincarnation of Vito Marcantonio. The reality is that these big entrenched east coast city and state Democratic Party machines are pathetic and corrupt organizations that suck up to the rich and play a significant role in lessening political change. When Ocasio-Cortez won her primary against that lame wet noodle Joe Crowley, a lot of the New York machine didn’t want to take it seriously. There was a leadership change in the Queens Democratic Party but that isn’t going to matter when you run Wall Street hacks like Melinda Katz against solid progressives with strong organizations behind them.

And this is precisely what is supposed to happen! A lot of people dislike primary challenges, thinking that they weaken incumbents. While that’s possible in some places, it’s not in Queens. That doesn’t mean that every leftist candidate is going to prove out–Julia Salazar’s personal life is going to limit her ceiling, but she’s still a solid progressive vote in Albany so who really cares. And how is that different from all the terrible Wall Street quasi-liberals like, oh, I don’t know, Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer? Moreover, being a politician is not a lifetime sinecure! If you don’t properly represent your district, you shouldn’t be in office. And there are a lot of longtime Democrats who really don’t represent their districts well, at all levels of government.

That doesn’t even get at Cabán’s platform, which includes the decriminalization of sex work. The police unions basically defeated and used up Bill De Blasio. Let’s see what they can do against Cabán. At the very least, she’s probably a tougher customer than De Blasio, who was never really a streetfighter to begin with. Cabán’s got winds behind her and the New York Democrats had better pay attention and get with the times or more of them are going to be swept away. And actually, I hope they are.

It goes without saying that none of this happens with idiotic third party campaigns.

I just wish this would spread further into, say, Rhode Island, where there has been some progress in electing good Democrats, but they are basically persona non grata by our dumpster fire Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, the “Democrat” who is anti-choice and pro-gun.

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