The Rise of Tiffany Cabán

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Tiffany Cabán, a 31-year-old queer Latina and public defender who was born and raised in New York City, may become the next district attorney for the borough of Queens, joining a wave of progressives who have run for district attorney—and in several cases, won—in cities across the country.

While Tuesday’s primary election remains officially too close to call, Cabán holds a narrow lead over her closest challenger Melinda Katz, the current borough president and a more centrist, politically connected Democrat. Thousands of absentee ballots remain to be counted, but given the crowded field of candidates, Cabán’s campaign believes that her lead is insurmountable, and she declared victory on Tuesday night.

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From the Nation:

“When we started this thing, they said I was too young. They said I didn’t look like a district attorney,” Cabán said Tuesday at her raucous election-night party. “They said we could not build a movement from the grassroots. They said we could not win. But we did it, y’all.”

“I am a 31-year-old, queer Latina public defender whose parents grew up in the Woodside Housing projects,” she continued. “And I decided to run. I ran because for too long, too many communities in Queens hadn’t had a fair shot in our criminal-justice system.”

Cabán’s longshot campaign was propelled by support from the city’s grassroots left—including the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, the Working Families Party, and Decrim NYC, a coalition of groups and individuals working to decriminalize sex work—and a wave of endorsements from elected officials like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders. In the vein of progressive prosecutors like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, Cabán campaigned on a platform that was staunchly committed to ending mass incarceration, from ending cash bail to opposing the building of new jails. In a sign of how local campaigns can influence the national conversation, both Warren and Sanders signaled they were open to decriminalizing sex work after they endorsed Cabán, who had made the issue a central part of her campaign.

In a statement released after Cabán declared victory, Decrim NY celebrated it as “historic” and “hard-fought.” “Tiffany was the first DA candidate to campaign on the decriminalization of sex work, promising to decline to prosecute sex workers, clients, family members and loved ones that live with sex workers, and sex workers working together for safety,” the coalition wrote.

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They added: “We know that Tiffany’s policies as Queens DA will serve as a model for DAs everywhere to fight violence and exploitation in the sex trades and end the criminalization of poverty that most severely impacts people in the sex trades.”

While Cabán has yet to be officially declared the winner of the race, her supporters are already highlighting her campaign as another example of how grassroots energy can defeat candidates backed by the Democratic Party machine. “This proves how wrong people were to minimize how significant Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory was,” Susan Kang, a Queens DSA member and political science professor told the Nation. “Grassroots campaigns can and will be as powerful as institutional-based campaigns.”

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