No to incarceration, yes to rehabilitation. This could well be Tiffany Cabán’s campaign slogan, the young progressive hopeful looking to secure the democratic nomination for Queens district attorney through promises of sweeping criminal justice reform. Of puertorican descent and working class roots, Cabán and her campaign have come as a shock to a good deal of people, especially those in the so-called political establishment.
But, to anybody who has followed local politics in Queens, Cabán’s meteoric rise comes as no surprise. The powerful leftist movement that’s been brewing in the borough has given birth to progressive politicians like Jessica Ramos, Catalina Cruz, and of course, one Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose office lies at the heart of Jackson Heights, perhaps the borough’s most diverse neighborhood.
“For too long the DA’s office has measured success through how many people they can throw into jails, how many convictions they can get and how quickly,” Cabán told Noticias Univision 41 in an interview. “What we should be working together towards is making sure that we’re reducing recidivism, that people aren’t reoffending, that we are de-carcerating, that we are getting people out of jail and rooted in their communities with access to rehabilitation resources.”
Perhaps a year ago, when Richard A. Brown still sat as Queens’ DA ––a role he assumed with an iron fist for almost three decades–– Cabán’s candidacy would’ve been unthinkable. After all, her background as a public defender, with what some might call a lenient stance on crime, would’ve scarcely fit in a borough whose justice department has historically taken a strong-arm approach towards crime, applying tactics that many contemporary prosecutors would consider anachronistic.
But, a lot has changed since the time Brown was sworn in, some 28 years ago. The progressive wave that swept many parts of the country in the 2018 midterm elections ––and whose patron saint is a congresswoman from The Bronx with a background not unlike Cabán’s–– changed the perception of what was possible in the political arena.
A lot of the criticism directed at AOC during and after her campaign, is the same one being launched at Cabán: that she’s too young and inexperienced, that she doesn’t understand the inner workings of the system, and so forth. But just as the young congresswoman has proved, this distance from the status quo could be advantageous, especially when your constituents are a new generation of voters eager for radical change.
The comparisons between the two candidacies is not unwarranted. Both women are backed by the same coalition of strongly-rooted community organizations and progressive figures. Ocasio-Cortez is just one of many local figures to have given Cabán a public endorsement, along with Ramos, Julia Salazar and New York City comptroller Scott Stringer, among many others. Her campaign has also gone national, gathering endorsements from strong leftist candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Cabán, 31, has stood out from the other candidates due to her distinct profile. She identifies as a queer working class latina, and has touted her experience as a public defender as a way of highlighting her commitement to helping her community. Her contenders, on the other hand, have had much more traditional careers in the criminal justice system. Rory Lancman has worked as a civil litigator in private practice, Gregory Lasak is a veteran judge with decades of experience, Mina Malik was a former Assistant Attorney General in D.C., Betty Lugo served as Assistant District Attorney in Nassau County, and Jose Nieves was the Deputy Attorney General in Chief of the Attorney General's Office in New York State.
But perhaps Cabán’s biggest rival is Queens borough president Melinda Katz, the antithesis of everything she and her campaign represents. She is a career politician, with decades of experience in the political machine and with some very powerful connections. She’s gathered donations from hotel and real estate companies, as well as a good deal of the local unions ––a clear indication of any candidate’s political prowess.
Cabán, on the other hand, has the support of community organizations like Make the Road Action, Working Families and The Democratic Socialists of New York. These groups were front and center in the fight against Amazon’s arrival in Queens and have launched an incessant, militant campaign against the gentrifying forces that threaten the borough’s working-class communities. Cabán has vowed to go against abusive landlords, the greedy figures that exploit the neighborhoods’ most vulnerable tenants.
But perhaps her most radical stance is the promise to prosecute ICE agents who use shady tactics to go after undocumented immigrants. "ICE is this rouge agency” said the Queens candidate. "Our job is to protect the community and we're not going to let anyone hide behind a badge.”
Cabán imagines the DA's office as one that works for the community and not against them, even if it means going after law enforcement itself. "If there are instances where an ICE agent commits an assault, excessive force, a sexual assault, or if somebody dies in their custody, we have to be ready to prosecute.”
If campaign donations are any indication, Cabán's commitment to her community has proven to be a good investment. Within three weeks of the election, she managed to raise $233,000, mostly from individual donors, a number that puts her well above her competitors. The average donation to her campaign is only $51. She has a significant advantage over her opponent Katz, who only raised $172,000 in the same time period, mostly from corporate donors.
Although it's still too early to tell, Caban's campaign could have greater ramifications not only for the borough, but for the entire country's new progressive movement, which gathers more strength through every electoral victory.
The democratic primary for Queens District Attorney takes place next Tuesday, June 25