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Tiffany Cabán Joins Working Families Party To Recruit Progressive Prosecutors, Sheriffs

Cabán, the career public defender who lost a primary bid for district attorney in Queens County, New York, will help the political party build nationwide support in criminal justice elections.

Tiffany Cabán in June.Scott Heins/Getty Images

Tiffany Cabán, a former candidate for Queens County, New York, district attorney, has joined the Working Families Party as a national political organizer to help elect progressive prosecutors and sheriffs across the country.

Cabán will work in the senior role to recruit candidates who align with the reformist principles—such as decriminalizing drug possession and treating it like a substance use disorder—that helped her emerge from relative obscurity as a public defender in New York City to become a rising star in the progressive prosecutor movement. Her organizing job is planned to last at least through February, said Rob Duffey, national communications director for the party. 

In an interview with The Appeal, Cabán said that her goal is to build out the party’s participation in DA and sheriff elections set for 2020, with a focus on finding candidates who are redefining public safety and who want to divest from the business of incarceration. 

“I see an opportunity to continue to build off of the work that we did on the campaign, which was, in so many ways, an extension of the work that I did in the courtroom,” Cabán said. “Coming into this space is really about how can we be as successful as possible in getting our communities the kind of criminal justice reforms that they deserve—that they demand,” she said, “and that we are electing not just so-called progressive prosecutors but decarceral prosecutors around the country.”

This is the first news of Cabán’s next steps since she conceded the Queens DA Democratic primary race to borough president Melinda Katz in August. Katz won the July race by a narrow margin, triggering a nailbiter manual recount; she emerged the victor, just 55 votes ahead of Cabán. Katz, whose platform moved left over the course of the race on issues like decriminalizing sex work and ending money bail, is the overwhelming favorite to win in the general election on Nov. 5. 

The new job also means Cabán has resigned as a lawyer at New York County Defender Services in Manhattan, she confirmed in the interview. She has worked there for the past four years and, before that, worked for the Legal Aid Society’s criminal defense practice in New York City.

Maurice Mitchell, the Working Family Party’s national director, said Cabán’s candidacy “has created a sort of groundswell of grassroots candidates that are interested in these types of races,” Mitchell said in a phone interview. The party backed Cabán’s run for DA.

“Tiffany has been tried by fire,” he said. “So she has the hard skills and practice of understanding what the challenges are and also what the possibilities are and running these types of insurgent DA races.”

The criminal justice reform movement is increasingly focused on elevating district attorneys nationwide for the role they can play in transforming the criminal legal system. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins, and St. Louis County DA Wesley Bell, among others, all won election in the last two years after campaigning on substantial reforms, including diverting people from jails and into treatment programs.

“Tiffany’s work at the [Working Families Party] couldn’t be more important,” Krasner said in a statement to The Appeal. “Tiffany has helped change the debate around criminal justice in New York, and now she’s going to find a new generation of reform candidates to do the same in their own communities.”

But Krasner and others, have faced backlash from tough-on-crime voices, who have pointed to progressive policies to stoke fears of upticks in crime. Lawmakers in Pennsylvania tried to muscle power from Krasner in July over his handling of gun crime, and Rollins has faced questions over declining bail for some violent offenses. Cabán said she sees her job as helping to build confidence in candidates who may be discouraged from taking bold steps toward reform when faced with such pushback.

“One thing that’s so important to remember is that the newer coalition of decarceral prosecutors is trying to undo decades and decades of work and harm that’s been done,” Cabán said. “And while nobody is going to be perfect, I certainly think that we are moving in the right direction on these things.”

Earlier this month, Cabán appeared at a Queens rally for Democratic presidential contender Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who endorsed her run for DA over the summer. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is also seeking the nomination and supported Cabán for DA, recently won the endorsement of the Working Families Party. 

Asked if she would seek elected office in future, Cabán told The Appeal that her current focus is on electing “as many of these transformational, decarceral district attorneys around the country that we can.”

“One of the things that I have done recently, that has taken a lot of pressure off for myself, is not really focusing on what the end goal is—whether it’s running for this office or doing this thing—but really focusing on just the work itself,” she said.

Update: This piece was updated to clarify the duration of Cabán’s role as a national political organizer with the Working Families Party.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Wesley Bell’s and Rachael Rollins’s titles. They are district attorney of St. Louis County, not St. Louis and district attorney of Suffolk County, not Boston.