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Revolt of the Outsiders: First AOC, Now Tiffany Cabán

Meet the public defender who is shaking up the Queens DA race.

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Tiffany Cabán, a public defender, has her last nighttime arraignment shift before campaigning to become Queens district attorney. , Credit: Tiffany Caban campaign

It was the first beautiful day of spring, and families were gathered at Travers Park on 34th Avenue to protest a car dealership that was servicing vehicles in a spot where the city had promised car-free park access. And Cabán, a grassroots candidate for Queens district attorney who has risen from long shot to top contender, was there to show her support.

“This epitomizes all of the things we have been fighting for in my campaign,” she told the protesters. “We need to start putting our children first, our community first, our people first, over profits, always.”

It wasn’t the sort of event where one might expect to find a candidate for the borough’s top prosecutor. But Cabán, 31, is not running to be a typical district attorney. The queer Latina public defender is promising to end cash bail, fully decriminalize sex work and prosecute violent cops, abusive landlords and immigration agents. In a race where most candidates are calling themselves “progressives,” she prefers the label “decarceral.” Her goal is to keep as many people as possible out of jail.

“[We must make] sure we’re investing all of our resources into creating spaces that are safe for our children to grow, that allow us to not survive but thrive,” Cabán told the crowd.

Children and parents cheered. She had their attention.

If you had asked her a couple of years ago, Tiffany Cabán would have balked at the idea of running for district attorney.

Born in the borough’s Richmond Hill neighborhood, she had spent her career as an adversary of prosecutors, a public defender in Manhattan who believed the criminal-justice system was set up to fail the people she represented. She saw her own community reflected in her clients, who faced prosecution for offenses as small as jumping a subway turnstile or possessing marijuana. Cabán would sometimes refer to her job as being “one of the good guys.”

Then a wave of progressive prosecutors won election in other cities, such as Rachael Rollins in Boston and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia. And in January, longtime Queens DA Richard Brown, who increasingly stood out as a hardliner compared with the prosecutors in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx, announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election after nearly 28 years in office. Cabán saw an opportunity that had previously seemed unthinkable: radically changing the system she’d spent years fighting from within.

The time was ripe for a candidate like Tiffany Cabán. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset win in the 2018 congressional elections had rocked the Queens Democratic machine and activated a politics of hope. A few months later, community organizers celebrated another victory when Amazon announced it would not be opening a new headquarters in Long Island City. And activists across New York City had been steadily building a coalition to draw attention to the power and abusive practices of prosecutors.

So, with the encouragement of a small group of friends and supporters, in late January Cabán launched an outsider bid to become district attorney, promising to stop prosecuting low-level offenses, create a community advisory board and advocate investing in health care, housing and education while seeking shorter sentences for felony convictions. Endorsements from grassroots organizations and local politicians began to stack up. Her volunteer base grew from dozens to hundreds.

“When I decided to run, I said it would be a win if we are just moving the conversation to center the experiences of my clients and their communities, if we are holding people’s feet to the fire,” Cabán told The Indypendent. “What surprised me quickly early on is we got to a place where we can and will win this.”

Just weeks before the June 25 Democratic primary, Tiffany Cabán has emerged as one of the top candidates in a field of seven contenders, all of whom are promising reform. If she wins, she’ll be on the road to becoming one of the most progressive prosecutors in the country, managing around 350 assistant district attorneys and a budget of nearly $40 million.

In late May, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez endorsed her. “Our criminal justice system needs to change. If Tiffany Cabán wins, things are going to change,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement. “We deserve a district attorney that understands that to make our community safer we help people prosper. We deserve Tiffany Cabán.”

That endorsement is likely to bolster Cabán’s campaign with more volunteers, money and visibility. But it’s also a warning to the city’s political establishment. If Cabán wins, it will be a sign that the grassroots groups that helped elect Ocasio-Cortez are developing lasting political power.

“We’re so used to operating in a politics of fear and ‘let’s not make it worse’ that we don’t support and back bold, visionary candidates that are really going to disrupt things,” said Alyssa Aguilera, executive director of VOCAL-NY Action Fund, a group that has endorsed Cabán. “It’s exciting that the progressive community and so many people are lining up behind Tiffany and really going for what we want.”

Like Ocasio-Cortez before her, Cabán is taking on a candidate backed by the powerful Queens Democratic establishment. Her leading rival is Borough President Melinda Katz, who has received more than $1 million in campaign donations, including a quarter-million from real estate developers and related interests. Cabán, who is not accepting corporate PAC donations, has more individual donors than all the other candidates combined. As of May 24, she had raised around $215,500 from 2,545 people, an average of $84 per donation.

Katz, who served six years in the Assembly and eight years on the City Council before being elected borough president in 2013, has endorsements from several powerful unions, including the United Federation of Teachers, and a slew of local elected officials. Viewed by many as the race’s frontrunner, she has moved steadily left as Cabán has gained momentum. Initially, Katz only promised to end cash bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. Now she’s vowing to eliminate cash bail completely. She has also walked back her approval of the city’s plan to open new jails in Queens and three other boroughs after closing Rikers Island. Cabán has supported the No New Jails movement since early in her campaign.

“It’s really shaping up to be us versus Katz, and the contrast is pretty strong,” said Cabán’s campaign manager, Luke Hayes. “The machine does have its influence and it’s working hard with Katz, but a lot of people have soured on what the machine says and what they actually do.”

Cabán is looking to rack up votes in the western Queens neighborhoods — Astoria, Long Island City, Sunnyside, Woodside, Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, Corona — that powered Ocasio-Cortez to her upset victory. Katz has greater name recognition throughout the borough and can expect to do especially well in affluent, predominantly white enclaves like her native Forest Hills. The large black vote in southeastern Queens could prove decisive.

Also running are Councilmember Rory Lancman, as well as Greg Lasak, Betty Lugo, Mina Malik and Jose Nieves. All seven candidates — even Lasak, a career prosecutor and judge backed by police unions and the most conservative of the group — have pledged to bring progressive reforms to the borough.

Tiffany Cabán (center) with sex workers from Make the Road Action. Cabán has garnered support from a number of groups whose members have negatively impacted by the harsh policies of the Queens DA’s office. Credit: Sue Brisk

Community members gathered to hear the details of these plans at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center on a Wednesday night in mid-May. The forum was moderated by activist Nicole Paultre Bell, less than a mile from the street where her fiancé, Sean Bell, was shot and killed by police in 2006, on what would have been their wedding day. Three of the officers involved were acquitted, and others never faced charges. Now, Paultre Bell was asking the candidates before her why they were the best choice to reform an office that for decades has sowed distrust in the most diverse borough in the country. Cabán went first.

“I am running to reduce recidivism, I am running to decarcerate,” she said. “You’re going to hear a lot of similar-sounding ideas tonight, but the differences between me and the others here tonight are massive.”

To win, she’ll not only have to convince Queens to approve a radically new direction for a district attorney’s office known for the tough-on-crime policies of Richard Brown, who died in May. She’ll also have to persuade voters she’s the best reformer for the job. At the Jamaica forum, all seven candidates pledged to end the school-to-prison pipeline, not prosecute low-level offenses, and implement more alternatives to incarceration. But they offered vastly different models for making these reforms a reality.

“You can vote and have your new DA be a career politician or a career prosecutor, or it can be a public defender,” Cabán said in her closing statement. “Who do you trust?”

•   •   •

The stakes are high for communities of color in Queens that have long faced over policing and discrimination by law enforcement. ICE arrests and deportations in the borough have increased exponentially since President Donald Trump was elected in 2016. While most of the prosecutors and judges in Queens are white, the majority of those funneled through the courts and jails are people of color. Transgender women of color are disproportionately targeted by the criminalization of sex work.

These disparities were at the forefront of state Senator Jessica Ramos’s mind when she went out to campaign for Cabán on a Saturday morning in May. Ramos, who represents the Jackson Heights-Corona area, was one of six candidates who unseated incumbents from the Independent Democratic Conference — eight Democrats whose alliance with the Republicans had enabled the GOP to retain control of the Senate — in last year’s primaries.

Cabán credits her political activation in part to that campaign, and Ramos was there to return the favor. While the new state senator stood with a small group of volunteers on Corona Plaza preparing to knock on doors, street vendors nearby sold corn and tamales to passers-by. People occasionally stopped to pick up campaign flyers.

“This is the epicenter of deportation in Queens. We’re surrounded by hundreds of undocumented people right now, including street vendors, who are continuously persecuted by the police, and small businesses that need to thrive,” Ramos said. “I represent the largest transgender community in the country. Everybody here is just trying to survive. We need to ensure that people can do so in a way that is safe, and ensuring that we have a district attorney who understands that struggle, who understands those lived experiences, is crucial to us.”

‘This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform our criminal justice system and really be a model for the rest of the country.’

Born to Puerto Rican parents, Cabán spent her childhood playing at the Woodside Houses where her grandmother, a foster parent, lived. She experienced both the over-policing of her neighborhood and the transformative power of community-based solutions. When she was a child, her family allowed her grandfather, an alcoholic Korean War veteran who had physically abused her grandmother, to rejoin the family after a prolonged estrangement. He would tell Cabán stories, make her laugh and play guitar for her.

That relationship taught Cabán that people were not simply the sum of their worst actions. As she got older, she wondered what it might have meant for her family if there had been public services to help her grandfather when he returned home from combat traumatized. Instead, the main government presence in her neighborhood was often police.

Cabán left New York to study at Penn State and then earned her law degree back home at New York Law School. Despite being advised not to, she then became a public defender. She saw her clients trapped by the criminal justice system. One man faced jail time for jumping a turnstile to get to a meeting with his parole officer and spent more than a year in court fighting the charge. Another, who was struggling with his mental health, was arrested multiple times at the emergency room after going there seeking medical attention.

Cabán returns to those stories again and again. Her voice tends to speed up as she rattles off examples of how the system has failed people she knows. When she talks about the reforms that she wants to implement, she slows down to make her case.

“This new way of prosecuting is actually the thing public defenders have been fighting for, for decades,” Cabán said. “A lot of these things are common sense.”

•   •   •

The result of the Queens DA race will likely depend on turnout. With community organizations behind her, Cabán’s campaign is following a model laid out by the insurgents of 2018, such as Ocasio-Cortez and state Senators Ramos and Julia Salazar: focusing on reaching voters that are often ignored by campaigns. This means mobilizing young voters and people who generally haven’t voted in primary races, instead of exclusively targeting the small pool of voters who regularly show up to the polls.

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz has the backing of the Democratic Party machine in the DA race. But in 2019 is that enough? Credit: Courtesy

This sort of voter mobilization in a borough as vast and diverse as Queens is no small challenge, and a growing grass-roots coalition, including the Democratic Socialists of America, New Queens Democrats and the Working Families Party has teamed up to get out the vote. These groups are centering people who have felt the consequences of tough-on-crime policies directly. Sex workers with the community organization Make the Road Action have been regularly campaigning for Cabán. VOCAL-NY Action Fund — a statewide group that mobilizes low-income people affected by issues like homelessness and mass incarceration — has been mobilizing formerly incarcerated people to join the campaign. Carl Stubbs, an activist who spent decades in and out of prison and years on Rikers Island, has become one of Cabán’s most ardent supporters.

“Tiffany is what we need because she works with the people,” Stubbs said. “I thought DAs were always bad, regardless, but after listening to her, she inspired me.”

Stubbs is a volunteer with Court Watch NYC — a project that formed after the 2017 elections when Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr. and Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez both won new terms with promises of reform. Court Watch monitors New York City courtrooms to hold DAs accountable to their promises and inform the public about the power prosecutors hold. The group soon joined Queens for DA Accountability, a coalition dedicated to monitoring and changing the district attorney’s office through community organizing.

It’s efforts like these that have pushed the Queens DA race into the spotlight and mobilized more than 300 volunteers to canvas for Cabán at subway stations, schools, street corners and doorways for months. Some are veteran activists. Others were inspired by Ocasio-Cortez’s win.

“Our standard narratives about who wins and who needs to win are no longer gospel,” said Susan Kang, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Queens DSA member who has been regularly canvassing. “Cabán has the strongest volunteer base — that’s not questionable.”

Some of these volunteers gathered on a sunny Saturday in May in Cabán’s Jackson Heights campaign headquarters to prepare for a day of door-knocking. Sasha Weinstein, a Cabán staffer, was there advising volunteers on talking points.

“A lot of people don’t know that they can vote for district attorney. There’s this whole pre-conversation that you have to get to before talking about why Tiffany is good,” Weinstein says. “When you present the DA as this person (who) chooses which cases go through the system, you see this look on people’s faces that are like, ‘Yeah I do have opinions on this.’ We get to entirely redefine the DA in this race.”

Cabán told The Indypendent that if she wins, she plans to throw out the typical metrics of success for prosecutors, such as percentage of convictions won, and instead judge them by their ability to reduce recidivism, decarcerate, and apply the law fairly regardless of class or race. She promises to create units within the office to release and clear the records of people incarcerated for offenses no longer being prosecuted, and end civil asset-forfeiture practices. She’ll also work with communities to distribute the more than $100 million the Queens DA has received from federal forfeiture seizures to local groups, using a participatory budgeting process.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform our criminal justice system here in Queens and really be a model for the rest of the country,” Cabán said. “This is not a time for meeting in the middle and incremental change. We can have restorative change right now, and we may not get this opportunity in our lifetimes again.”

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