She entered the race as a long shot candidate, a 31-year-old public defender seeking to outrun her odds despite facing far more established candidates.
But Tiffany Cabán’s progressive candidacy quickly gained momentum, national attention and donations from afar.
The Democratic primary for Queens district attorney won’t likely be officially decided until next week, after absentee and affidavit ballots are counted. But as of now, Ms. Cabán, a public defender and political novice, holds a narrow lead over Melinda Katz, the Queens borough president. If she maintains her roughly 1,100-vote lead, Ms. Cabán will be the heavy favorite in November’s general election.
Ms. Cabán’s possible win has been likened to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprising primary victory last year over the powerful Democratic incumbent, Joseph Crowley, and the two share some similarities.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s rise, from bartender to the House of Representatives, is now well known. Here are five takeaways from Ms. Cabán’s surprising emergence during the campaign.
Her run was motivated by her work as a public defender
Ms. Cabán has, for the past seven years, worked as a public defender in Manhattan, where she said she saw overzealous prosecutions and the flaws in the criminal justice system. She was encouraged by friends to enter the race. In a questionnaire, she said she decided to do so because “I am frustrated and infuriated by the system.”
She has said she would increase funding for programs that provide alternatives to incarceration, like drug treatment and mental health counseling. She would also halt the office’s pursuit of crimes like fare evasion, drug possession and loitering, the kind of minor “broken-windows” offenses that have been criticized by activists calling for an overhaul of the criminal justice system.
She has called Rikers Island, New York’s largest jail complex, “the biggest mental-health hospital in the city.”
She identifies as “a proud queer Latina”
Ms. Cabán was born in Richmond Hills, Queens, and now lives in Astoria. Ms. Cabán, 31, received a bachelor’s degree from Penn State University and a law degree from New York Law School. She spent four years working for New York County Defender Services and the Legal Aid Society’s criminal defense practice.
During the campaign, she focused on her working-class roots. Her father worked as an elevator mechanic and her mother as a caretaker for children — both were raised in the Woodside Houses, a public housing complex in Queens.
In a campaign video, Ms. Cabán said her background has helped shape her career. “I’m a queer Latina from a working-class family,” she said in the video. “People like us are exactly who the system is trying to keep down. That’s why I became a public defender: to defend my community.”
She was endorsed by major liberal politicians, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren
But the endorsement that has gotten the most attention was from Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman elected to Congress, who has emerged as a megawatt figure in Democratic Party politics and a magnet for scorn from conservatives.
Her endorsement of Ms. Cabán helped bring national attention to the campaign and elevated Ms. Cabán’s profile.
“Our criminal justice system needs to change,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement during the campaign explaining her endorsement. “New Yorkers deserve a seat at the table, and a champion who will fight to realign our priorities toward equal treatment under the law. If Tiffany Cabán wins, things are going to change.”
Ms. Cabán is the latest “reformer” to pursue a district attorney seat
Candidates who have sought to change the criminal justice system from the inside have succeeded in prosecutor races in such places as Boston and Philadelphia. (Larry Krasner, in Philadelphia, and Rachel Rollins, in Boston, both endorsed Ms. Cabán.)
Ms. Cabán’s campaign has been regarded as an extension of the trend, and Mr. Krasner, who was elected in 2017 after a career as a criminal defense lawyer who focused on civil rights cases, campaigned with her in Queens.
Ms. Cabán told The New Yorker that she had closely watched Mr. Krasner’s campaign. “The things that he was running on — everybody wanted to call it radical reform,” she told the writer Jennifer Gonnerman. “What you learn doing the work if you’re a public defender, or if you’re part of the communities affected by our justice system — it’s common sense.”
Her fledgling campaign survived bumpy moments
Ms. Cabán operated with far less financial support than her leading opponents, Ms. Katz and Greg Lasak. At one point, the campaign reported having less than $1,000 in the bank and some former staff members complained about delays in their pay, the independent news site The City reported last month.
In March, she took a leave of absence from her public defender job, causing her, she told The New Yorker, to lose her health insurance.
But by June, her campaign had hit its stride. She took in an avalanche of small cash contributions from around the country: Only about 15 percent of the $450,000 given to Ms. Cabán in individual donations came from people who listed an address in Queens, according to an analysis by The New York Times of her filings dating back to January. About 45 percent of her contributions came from outside of New York City. Nearly $100,000 came from California.