/Echoes of Ocasio-Cortez in Queens DA showdown — but a different dynamic at play

Echoes of Ocasio-Cortez in Queens DA showdown — but a different dynamic at play

New York City | AP Photo

The borough president said she wouldn’t decriminalize the entire sex work industry because she wants to reserve the right to prosecute pimps and johns. | AP Photo

NEW YORK — Exactly one year after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upended New York’s political establishment and became a national liberal phenomenon, voters will head to the polls June 25 for another rollicking Queens race with similar overtones.

The borough’s open district attorney’s seat pits seven Democrats against one another, including a left-leaning public defender backed by Ocasio-Cortez, a longtime Queens politician regarded as the establishment candidate and a former Queens assistant district attorney.

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Democratic presidential contenders Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders got in on the action Wednesday, throwing their weight behind the insurgent public defender, Tiffany Cabán – to the agitation of Rep. Gregory Meeks, who took control of the Queens Democratic machine after Ocasio-Cortez took down Rep. Joe Crowley last year.

But the race, which has been cast as a replay of Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, has one unignorable difference.

Where Ocasio-Cortez’s district only includes a sliver of Queens, this borough-wide Democratic primary will take into account a set of predominantly black neighborhoods where voters skew more moderate than the insurgent congresswoman and her preferred pick, Cabán.

Most elected and religious leaders in Southeast Queens are backing Borough President Melinda Katz, a career politician from Forest Hills running on the strength of her name-recognition, local relationships and managerial experience.

Cabán, the public defender from Astoria, secured the backing of Warren and Sanders on Wednesday, sparking a rebuke from Meeks, the leader of the borough’s Democratic political organization, which is behind Katz.

“I saw today that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have decided to get involved in the DA race in Queens County. I don’t know who they spoke with, but clearly they did not speak with the elected officials of Queens County, or the people who elected them,” Meeks said Wednesday.

Meeks said the law enforcement job disproportionately impacts African American residents, “yet Warren and Sanders saw fit to endorse without even considering what African Americans thought.”

“African American voters are tired of the patronizing and tired of the arrogance,” he added. “If they want to be the president for all Americans, I suggest they speak with us before they decide to speak for us.”

Civil rights activist Shaun King, who supports Cabán, tweeted in response: “They spoke with criminal justice reform experts. All of them agree on @CabanForQueens.”

With no public polling in the off-cycle race, it’s difficult to identify a front-runner.

While Cabán’s endorsements mirror those of other upstart candidates around the country — she’s backed by the Democratic Socialists of America and Justice Democrats — Katz has supporters with established roots in the borough: a slate of political leaders in Southeast Queens, prominent unions like 1199SEIU and 32BJ, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is running for president, has yet to endorse in the race.

“Statistically you can’t win a borough-wide Democratic primary without carrying Southeast Queens,” said consultant Jonathan Greenspun, who is unaffiliated with any candidate.

He said Katz “clearly has the institutional support required to do very well in Southeast Queens” and Cabán may have waited too long to do outreach there.

Lobbyist and political adviser George Fontas described Southeast Queens as “a counterweight to the highly motivated far-left wing of the party that has sprouted in Western Queens” and said its residents are “more likely to reliably come out for the moderate candidates or candidates with whom they have built a relationship over time.”

In the 2017 mayoral primary, the three Queens districts turning out the most votes were in Jamaica, St. Albans and Queens Village in the southeast part of the borough.

“Southeast Queens is 40 percent of the electorate. There’s nothing that comes closer,” said City Council Member Donovan Richards, who endorsed Katz.

In an interview with POLITICO, Cabán emphasized other neighborhoods where she anticipates doing well.

“We obviously do see a lot of strength in western Queens. We’re throwing a lot of our resources into Southeast Queens. But we have a good amount of people in places that you might not expect, like Forest Hills, Kew Gardens. We have folks that are door knocking and campaigning out in Bayside. We’re in Flushing. We’re covering a lot of ground,” she said.

Two weeks before the election, Cabán said she went door knocking in Southeast Queens and attended a basketball tournament in St. Albans.

“I know that there are the ties there in terms of the old-school Democratic clubs and kind of a strategy behind consolidating a voting bloc,” she said. “But you know, again, when we talk about the new ways of thinking about elections and how we get our representatives into office, it’s really about person-to-person, door-to-door.”

Cabán’s candidacy is part of a larger movement by Real Justice PAC, a political action committee set up by King and other Bernie Sanders supporters to elect candidates running on criminal justice reform platforms. In addition to Cabán, the PAC backed Larry Krasner, who became Philadelphia’s district attorney in a 2017 upset.

Krasner also significantly benefited from a nearly $1.7 million donation from billionaire George Soros.

The only Soros money in the Queens district attorney race, however, comes from Gregory Soros, George’s son, who donated $5,000 to former prosecutor Greg Lasak on June 4.

Much of Cabán’s financial support originated from people out of state, including $35,000 from Patty Quillin, the California-based wife of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. In her more recent filing, she reported many individual donations of less than $100, and some as small as $3.

Her spokesperson, Monica Klein, tweeted that she took no money from real estate, in contrast to Katz’s reliance on developers’ money in the race.

As of the latest filing, Cabán had $276,326 on hand. Katz had $413,352 and Lasak had $231,237. City Council Member Rory Lancman, who’d positioned himself as the original reform candidate before his campaign was overshadowed by Cabán’s, had $470,637 on hand as of the most recent filing.

The other candidates in the race posted smaller balances: $21,064 for attorney Betty Lugo; $15,270 for former Brooklyn assistant district attorney Mina Malik, who also served as executive director of the Civilian Complaint Review Board; $6,482 for former prosecutor Jose Nieves.

Most of the candidates are closely aligned on the main issues that have come up in the race — ending cash bail, closing Rikers Island and the sex work industry.

Cabán has advanced a more left-leaning agenda, pledging not to seek cash bail for any crimes and to fully decriminalize the sex work industry, which entails not prosecuting sex workers, their clients — or “johns” — and pimps. She believes risk score algorithms and ankle bracelets for parolees are “problematic.”

She also doesn’t think the notoriously violent Rikers Island, which the city plans to shutter, should be replaced with new jails. She has received the backing of Akeem Browder, brother to Kalief Browder, who attempted suicide on Rikers Island awaiting trial for years for allegedly stealing a backpack.

In her role as borough president, Katz recommended on Wednesday that the city’s plan be voted down but said she does support replacing Rikers.

Katz, who Cabán said she views as her main opponent in the race, has taken a slightly more moderate stance on those issues. The borough president said she wouldn’t decriminalize the entire sex work industry because she wants to reserve the right to prosecute pimps and johns.

“So many families are being devastated by sex traffickers who use fraud and lies to bring people into this country to make them work in trade and at the end of the day we’re not getting any better by prosecuting victims of that trade,” Katz told POLITICO in a recent interview.

Melanie Thompson, a Queensbridge Houses resident and survivor of the sex trade, told POLITICO she has concerns with the impact complete decriminalization could have on victims of sex trafficking.

“There are more survivors in prostitution that are primarily women and girls of color and trans identifying individuals that are coming from marginalized and impoverished communities that make up for the majority of the people that are in the sex trade, not the smaller percentage that she spoke to,” Thompson said after a recent candidate forum. “But [Cabán] refuses to hear our side because, of course, it doesn’t align with her narrative.”

Thompson said she plans to vote for Malik, who has said she would prosecute the buyers and promoters of the sex trade, but not the workers.

Lasak, meanwhile, has the support of law enforcement unions throughout the city and was endorsed by the editorial boards of the Daily News and the New York Post. (The New York Times endorsed Cabán.)

In a recent interview, he said he is the only candidate with relevant experience for the job.

“You can’t walk in there never having done that work, knowing nothing about it, and then say ‘Alright I’m going to reform it,’” he said. “First of all, you go in there with that background, no one will respect you. They’ll respect the office that you hold, but they won’t respect you.”

Lasak’s being criticized by his opponents for holding more moderate positions — he’s questioned the impact of ending cash bail, for instance.

“No one wants to punish young people; we all want to help them,” he said during the interview. “But some people just commit violent crimes, some people commit really violent crimes. They have to be dealt with.”

But his campaign video is about his work freeing an innocent black man when he worked in the district attorney’s office.

“He’s the only person that has any experience,” said Rockaway resident and retired teacher Howard Schwach. “I’m very friendly with the other people ‘cause I was a newspaper editor here for 20 years. Especially with our borough president. She’s a nice person. But she’s, you know, she’s as qualified to be the DA as my son’s dog is.”

He also shrugged off Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement, calling her a “tchotchkela.”

“It’s kind of Yiddish for a shiny object that’s meaningless that people just collect,” he added.

If the occasional lawn signs are any indication, Lasak is the favorite candidate on the Rockaway peninsula, one of the city’s few Republican-leaning areas.

Other self-identified Democratic voters in the Rockaways and central Queens said they back Katz, often conceding she’s the only candidate they had heard of.

“I’ll vote for her. I think she’s competent and that’s what I’m looking for. Competence,” said Linda Kelly, who was heading to lunch with a friend.

A 79-year-old Forest Hills resident who would only provide her first name, Lukia, offered this assessment of the borough president: “She’s a woman. She’s smart. Let her do it. She’s got balls.”

Katz acknowledged she lacks the law enforcement experience of Lasak and criticized him as a “career prosecutor” who “judges [his] success by the number of convictions [he’s] gotten through the system.”

Richards predicted her relationships with Queens officials would trump Lasak’s experience and Cabán’s high-profile endorsements.

“AOC’s a rockstar … but I think the challenge is people know Melinda Katz in Southeast Queens,” he said. “I don’t want to say her endorsement is not going to move some parts of Southeast Queens, but I think at the end of the day, Melinda has been there. She showed up and I think that’s going to largely play to her advantage in this race in holding the base.”