With almost all of the results in Tuesday night, 31-year-old former New York City public defender Tiffany Caban holds a narrow edge over her closest rival, Melinda Katz, in the race for district attorney of Queens. Caban’s progressive campaign was backed by Justice Democrats, local Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as national figures like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Much like Ocasio-Cortez’s upset of former Rep. Joe Crowley, this campaign was right out of the Justice Democrats playbook. The idea is to target deeply leftist areas and run far-left primary challenges there. The relatively low voter turnout in such primaries offers the PAC the best opportunity to use its resources to drum up just enough votes to get past the finish line. Once the primary is won, these deep blue districts have no chance of voting Republican.
Caban’s campaign focused on decarceration, which is to say, putting fewer people in jail. She would also end cash bail, seek shorter sentences for felonies, and decline to prosecute prostitutes. It is a radical agenda, but with crime remaining at near all-time lows in New York City, enough voters were willing to give it a chance.
As former progressive Senate candidate and “Sex in the City” star Cynthia Nixon put it, “Queens is now the epi-center of the people powered, woman powered, Latinx powered progressive movement!!!”
Huge win for @CabanForQueens & a just justice system!!!
Queens is now the epi-center of the people powered, woman powered, Latinx powered progressive movement!!! pic.twitter.com/eBzNJQ03DW
— Cynthia Nixon (@CynthiaNixon) June 26, 2019
This may be true, but as it turns out, it’s not really all of Queens. Only 80,000 of the borough’s 760,000 registered Democrats bothered to vote. Those kinds of numbers are at the core of Justice Democrats’ savvy approach to gain political power without attracting wide swaths of voters. In sleepy primaries they can activate their aggressive leftist base and eke out wins.
As the map below shows, Caban’s support came mostly in the western part of Queens, closest to Manhattan. These are areas with high levels of gentrification. A year ago, this influx of progressive white voters helped AOC across the finish line, and it appears they may have done so again.
— Steven Romalewski (@SR_spatial) June 26, 2019
The rest of Queens, which tends to be more traditional and populated by natives, came out for Caban’s opponents, but with such low turnout it looks like it wasn’t enough. The biggest loser in this race, aside from Katz, who went in as the favorite, is the Democratic Party machine in New York City, which once again looked flat-footed and ill-prepared for the Justice Democrat challenge.
The establishment’s failure to mobilize their voters for a second time in as many years will be a wake up call for the party officials, but its not clear how they can stop this from happening again in other areas of the city rich in leftist voters. Part of the problem is just an enthusiasm gap; Justice Democrats are running “movement” candidates, while the establishment candidates more or less run on the status quo. It’s not that the status quo is bad so much as that it is isn’t sexy.
Although this is an important victory for Caban and Justice Democrats, it would be wrong to see it as a national bellwether. As with all of the group’s victories, this one comes in a deeply blue area that no Republican could ever win. If, as seems likely, such areas are the only ones where these progressive candidates can win, then we aren’t looking at a wave that will sweep the country.
But as we have seen with AOC, having elected officials in such high-profile areas does have a major impact on the national conversation. Look for the media to watch closely as Caban works to liberalize, or even progressivize, the Queens district attorney’s office.
It’s another day for Justice Democrats to celebrate, and another day for establishment Democrats to worry and wonder if they are losing hold of their own party.