NEW YORK – A year ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez changed New York politics when she ran an insurgent campaign, defeating Joe Crowley, a longtime congressman, power broker and head of Queens’ Democratic Party, in a primary. She went on to capture the seat.
Tiffany Caban, a progressive public defender who has never held office, currently holds a lead over another longstanding politician in the Democratic primary for Queens district attorney. If she holds on, she could surpass last year’s victory in terms of influence and borough-wide change.
Caban has a lead of about 1,000 votes over Melinda Katz, who is the Queens borough president, with more than 6,300 paper and affidavit ballots that still need to be sorted and counted, according to a New York City Board of Elections spokeswoman. The race is expected to be called next week.
David S. Birdsell, a professor and the dean at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College, said a victory for Caban could put the final nail in the coffin for the Democratic machine that once ruled Queens. But it is too early to tell what, if anything, has replaced it, he said.
“Their endorsement of candidates, connection of networks, and the ability to turn people out to vote has been replaced by things that are at least as good as the old machine was,” he said.
During her campaign, Caban – who could become the borough’s first queer Latina DA – said she would seek shorter sentences for crimes and use prosecutorial discretion to decline to charge in cases involving sex work and recreational drug use. She also said she would end cash bail for every offense.
Her campaign garnered the support of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party, along with smaller organizations focused on criminal-justice reform and tenant and immigrant rights.
In the days before Tuesday’s primary, 1,400 volunteers knocked on 120,000 doors, according to Monica Klein, a spokeswoman for Caban.
“The changes we are fighting for will mean a fairer and more equitable and more effective criminal-justice system,” Caban told her supporters Tuesday at a party in a Queens nightclub, where she declared victory even though the Board of Elections has yet to call the race.
Katz relied on more established organizing, including the support of some of the city’s largest labor unions and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Steven Romalewski, director of the CUNY Mapping Service at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, said Caban had strong support in western Queens, which includes Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s district.
Katz’s strongest showing was in southeastern Queens, a traditional party stronghold.
Caban did well throughout the borough, showing she overcame Katz’s name recognition.
“It’s likely she could’ve won by an even greater margin, and in more neighborhoods, if she weren’t perceived as the underdog candidate,” Romalewski said of Caban.
More than 85,000 Democrats voted in Tuesday’s primary; there are more than 766,000 registered Democrats in Queens.
Cuomo, speaking at an unrelated news conference on Wednesday, said voters wanted change – but the district attorney’s race reflected more on a low turnout than any major shift in Queens.
“If you have elections where very few people turn out, then by definition the motivated minority wins,” he said. “So it depends on the election and it depends on whether or not people vote.”
Birdsell said Ocasio-Cortez’s victory and Caban’s run show a significant change in how voters engage in elections.
“There are clearly issues that are resonating with the electorate that were not issues at the top of the list for the previous ‘Queens Machine,’” he said.