Joe Crowley, formerly one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress and the head of the Queens Democratic Party, could be hiding out and licking his wounds after being defeated in a primary last year by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Instead, he’s tried to hang on to vestiges of his influence — first by becoming a lobbyist, and more recently by throwing his weight behind Melinda Katz’s bid for Queens district attorney.
Crowley probably thought he was making a good bet. Katz won most major labor endorsements, plus the backing of the Queens Democratic Party and its new chair, Representative Gregory Meeks. That would have been enough to ensure victory in an era before Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory and a wave of recent municipal elections that put progressive attorneys like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner into DA’s offices around the country. But Tuesday’s primary election didn’t quite go the way Crowley, Meeks, or Katz had hoped. Instead, Katz looks set to lose to Tiffany Cabán, a 31-year-old queer Latinx public defender.
When she launched her campaign, Cabán looked like a long shot. She ran on the decriminalization of sex work, abolishing cash bail, and a general reordering of the DA’s priorities. On her campaign website, she writes, “Declining to prosecute cases that pose little or no threat to public safety will allow D.A. Cabán’s office to focus resources on the small number of people who commit the majority of crimes and lead criminal enterprises.” Cabán says she is uninterested in prosecuting fare evasion or other crimes of poverty.
Though Caban’s opponents attacked her proposals as evidence of her naïvety, her unabashedly left-wing campaign earned endorsements from two presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and Crowley’s old nemesis, Ocasio-Cortez. She also won the support of the Working Families Party, Democratic Socialists of America, and local Indivisible organizers. This, it turns out, is a coalition that can match the might of the Queens machine.
Absentee ballots still need to be counted, but the New York Times reports that Cabán leads Katz by 1.3 points; Katz would have to win the bulk of the absentee votes to beat Cabán, which is unlikely since they’ll be divided among seven candidates total. Assuming that Katz doesn’t at least win enough absentee votes to qualify the race for a recount, Cabán is the nominee, and will almost certainly defeat her Republican opponent.
This latest progressive upset means the Queens Democratic Party needs to recalibrate. The same goes for its traditional allies in the labor movement, who put themselves at odds with a surging grassroots committed to the decriminalization of poverty. And other members of the Queens machine —like Meeks — suddenly look more vulnerable. Meeks, whom Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington once dubbed “one of the most corrupt members of Congress,” already has his own primary challenger: City and State New York reports that a 27-year-old democratic socialist bartender named Shaniyat Chowdhury intends to run. If Meeks isn’t haunted by the specter of Ocasio-Cortez, perhaps he should listen to Cabán.
“They said I was too young,” she told supporters on Tuesday, according to the Times. “They said I didn’t look like a district attorney. They said we could not build a movement from the grassroots. They said we could not win.” It look like they were wrong.