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In Queens D.A. Race, Criminal Justice Reform Is The Real Winner

Establishment candidate Melinda Katz declared a narrow victory in the New York City borough’s district attorney primary, but progressive Tiffany Cabán pushed the race to the left on issues like marijuana and sex work.

Melinda Katz and Tiffany Cabán
Melinda Katz and Tiffany CabánPhotos Queens Borough President Melinda Katz [CJ] and Scott Heins/Stringer/Getty.

A month after a hotly contested Democratic primary election for district attorney in Queens County, the New York City Board of Elections certified results of the race on Monday, declaring a narrow victory for Borough President Melinda Katz over insurgent candidate Tiffany Cabán.

Katz had trailed Cabán, a Manhattan public defender, late into the June 25 primary night, but took a 60-vote lead Thursday, following a two-week manual recount. Cabán has not conceded, however. Tomorrow her campaign will seek in court to restore more than 100 ballots it says were inappropriately discarded by the board, which said the ballots did not properly list party affiliation. 

Though Cabán plans to contest the count, criminal defense lawyers and advocates say she was clearly victorious in pushing Katz and most of the crowded field of candidates to the left on issues like marijuana and sex work. Both Cabán and Katz pledged to address a culture of mass incarceration by declining to prosecute low-level offenses that were previously seen as bread-and-butter tasks of a prosecutor. Queens sent more pretrial defendants to city jails on misdemeanor charges in the last six months of 2018 than either Manhattan or Brooklyn, a statistic that advocates say they expect will change, whether Katz or Cabán comes out ahead in the court battle.

“The criminal justice system in Queens is going to get an update into the 21st century,” Ron Kuby, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney in New York for 35 years, said in a phone interview. “This is not a fight between good and evil, but progressive and more progressive.”

Cabán, whose campaign was powered by the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party, pledged to not to prosecute sex work, recreational drug use, and low-level offenses that disproportionately affect Black and Latinx New Yorkers. The 32-year-old garnered the endorsements of Democratic presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, as well as Larry Krasner of Philadelphia and Rachael Rollins of Boston, progressive DAs elected in the last two years who promised substantial reforms.

Katz, a former member of the New York State Assembly and the New York City Council, pledged during the campaign to end cash bail “completely,” to crack down on landlord abuses, and to create the DA office’s first conviction integrity unit. She also pledged to decline prosecution of sex workers. She garnered endorsements of established Queens Democrats, including party boss Representative Gregory Meeks.

In a statement released Monday, Katz urged “all participants in this hard-fought election” to unify around the goal of bringing changes to the criminal justice system in Queens, which lagged behind other boroughs on progressive policies like marijuana and sex work decriminalization under the 28-year leadership of late District Attorney Richard Brown, who died in May.

“This is a major moment for this borough, and it will take the support of all its residents to make this effort a success,” Katz said in the statement. “I will be spending the months ahead preparing for this critical task.”

Nina Luo, a steering committee member with Decrim NY, an advocacy group formed by people in the sex trades, told The Appeal that “Cabán changed the conversation for the country, on the whole issue” of sex work. Luo expects Katz to hold to her campaign pledge, but said that Cabán had gone further, embracing broader decriminalization for people who patronize or promote sex work.

“We hope that we can continue to mobilize people to push whoever is in office. So whatever happens, I hope the winner is prepared for that,” she said.

Mina Malik, a candidate in the Queens DA race and a former Brooklyn prosecutor, said she doubted Katz would adopt policies decriminalizing the entire sex work industry. “By the end of the campaign, Melinda and Tiffany made similar promises from ending cash bail for all crimes to launching a conviction review unit to ending the felony waiver plea policy,” Malik told The Appeal. “I expect that the new district attorney will form a strong transition team, and I look forward to all the sensible criminal justice reforms being implemented as promised.”

Unless Cabán is successful in court, Katz is likely to take over the Queens County DA’s office in January. Queens Republicans have yet to put forth a challenger for the November general election.

According to campaign attorney Jerry Goldfeder, if the court validates the uncounted primary ballots that Cabán’s campaign is contesting, it will determine the primary election in her favor. Out of the 90,540 ballots counted, Katz emerged with 34,920 votes to Cabán’s 34,860 votes.

“Certification by the Board of Elections is a formality that will allow our campaign to move forward with its efforts to restore wrongly invalidated ballots in court,” Cabán campaign spokesperson Monica Klein said Monday in a statement. “Our campaign is fighting to protect Queens voters from being disenfranchised and allow their voices to be heard.”

Last week, Cabán reiterated that her campaign was one representing constituents who don’t often get a say in prosecutor elections.

“We ran, I think, from day one a very principled campaign that stayed incredibly rooted in our values, that did not budge, that did not compromise,” Cabán said on Thursday. “It is far, far too long since our communities have had the ability to propel changes that they want seen in our systems.”

Kuby, the criminal defense attorney, told The Appeal that “Cabán has a bright political future ahead of her.” Said Kuby: “Her ideas were unspeakably radical 10 years ago, and have now become part of the mainstream.”