While the DA race is a New York City post, Cabán supporters are looking to wield their influence beyond the borders of Queens County and are in search for their next targets. | Hans Pennink/AP Photo
NEW YORK — The voting bloc that helped carry Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to victory has identified its next targets and is looking for more.
The group came within striking distance in the Queens district attorney Democratic primary of having Tiffany Cabán, a left-leaning public defender who ran on a criminal justice reform platform, beat Queens Borough President Melinda Katz.
Story Continued Below
After a two-week, unprecedented manual recount, Cabán conceded Tuesday night with Katz holding onto a lead of just 55 votes.
The close race shows that the voters who propelled Ocasio-Cortez’s unexpected win last year over an entrenched candidate are willing and able to extend their influence to other races. While the DA race is a New York City post, Cabán supporters are looking to wield their influence beyond the borders of Queens County and are in search for their next targets.
“My takeaway is a new coalition is nascent in Queens, and there is a lot more upside for this emerging progressive coalition than there is for the calcifying machine,” said Neal Kwatra, a Democratic consultant who has worked with New York politicians from Mayor Bill de Blasio to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Kwatra represents the Hotel Trades Council, a union that endorsed Katz but did little work on her campaign.
Younger voters in gentrifying neighborhoods of western Queens turned out en masse for Cabán, who was also able to cut into Katz’s expected base of support among older, middle-class black homeowners in southeast Queens.
The Democratic Socialists of America, which backed both Ocasio-Cortez and Cabán, is talking to roughly 10 people about possible challenges to local incumbents in Queens, said a source who would only speak on background about political challenges that have yet to be decided.
The group is looking at seats that appear winnable in western Queens — where it has a solid voting bloc — including those of Assemblymembers Aravella Simotas, Cathy Nolan and Michael DenDekker, said two sources.
And then there are left-leaning candidates who have already declared their intent to run against congressional incumbents.
Jamaal Bowman, a middle-school principal from the Bronx, is running against 30-year incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel. Bowman has entered the race with the support of Justice Democrats, the political action committee that backed Ocasio-Cortez.
Melquiades Gagarin, a Queens DSA member who volunteered for Cabán’s campaign, plans to launch a campaign against a formidable incumbent, Rep. Grace Meng, whose district stretches from Glendale to Flushing. Gagarin said he is seeking an endorsement from DSA and the Working Families Party, both of which backed Cabán and pull from a similar voter base.
“She’s very comfortable with the centrist wing of the party,” Gagarin said of Meng. “The voters deserve a choice on whether they want to stick with that or a more progressive vision.”
Meng said in a statement that she’s “honored” voters have had confidence in her to be their voice in Washington.
“Anybody is entitled to run and I take nothing for granted,” she said. “I will continue to fight tirelessly for the people of Queens whether it’s opposing the policies of the Trump administration, ensuring access to affordable healthcare, working with our labor unions to ensure safe working conditions, fighting for women and equal pay, helping veterans, standing up for underrepresented communities such as working families and immigrants, and being a voice for the voiceless.”
Erica Vladimer, an attorney and former state Senate staffer, is running against Rep. Carolyn Maloney, whose district includes Manhattan’s East Side and western Queens. Vladimer is a cofounder and former member of the Sexual Harassment Working Group that successfully advocated for New York to hold its first sexual harassment hearing in 27 years.
Vladimer, who also volunteered for Cabán’s campaign, said she is positioning herself as a progressive candidate. She said the support of groups like DSA would “reflect the values” she is trying to represent.
“There’s a new generation of voices that are not only tired of the status quo, but are seeking ways to actually overhaul it,” Vladimer said. “We know we’re part of that solution and tired of waiting for it to happen.”
The DA primary race showed that the same groups that supported Ocasio-Cortez in her upset win against former Rep. Joe Crowley have fortified their base in western Queens. Roughly twice the number of people in western Queens turned out to vote in the district attorney primary compared to the congressional primary a year prior.
Political insiders say gentrification has played a role in allowing western Queens to become a hotspot for DSA-backed candidates, ushering in younger, white voters that skew more liberal than traditional homeowners in southeastern and eastern Queens. They’re also less likely to be swayed by the record of a longtime Queens politician, like Crowley or Katz.
“If you’ve only lived in Queens county for five years, then you’re probably less inclined and less impressed by someone who has been a household name for 20,” said Stu Loeser, a Democratic political consultant who used to serve as former mayor Mike Bloomberg’s press secretary.
“I wouldn’t say eastern Queens matters less — it’s that the pie is getting larger and the pie is getting larger in the western part of the county,” Loeser continued.
But expanding elsewhere in Queens could still pose a challenge, as Katz’s win showed.
Katz secured the most support in Southeast Queens neighborhoods like Jamaica, St. Albans and Hollis — though turnout was muted compared to former primary years. Those areas primarily consist of middle-class, black homeowners who are more moderate than the voters to whom Cabán was appealing.
The sheer size of the race could have also cut into Katz’s margin over Cabán.
Greg Lasak, a longtime assistant district attorney and judge, secured roughly 13,000 votes in the race. The bulk of his support came in more moderate to conservative pockets of Queens that could have potentially swung for Katz, such as Breezy Point, Rego Park and Middle Village.
“For the more middle-of-the-road to conservative Democrats, when it comes down to a choice between [Katz] and Cabán, there is no choice. [Katz] clearly carries those votes,” said Jonathan Greenspun, a political consultant who used to work for Bloomberg.
The Van Wyck expressway has become something of a demarcation line, separating the gentrifying western Queens neighborhoods — where incumbents are vulnerable to progressive challengers — from eastern Queens, a more ethnically diverse area with homeowners that skew moderate. That could make challenging powerful incumbents like Meng a heavy lift.
“The DA race proved that the progressive community in western Queens is a force to be reckoned with in the borough, but that it’s support is strongest west of the Van Wyck,” said Evan Stavisky, a partner at the Parkside Group, who represents candidates in Queens — several of whom have been backed by the county organization. “That makes taking on Grace Meng a real challenge.”
Kathryn Dale, a member of the DSA’s Queens electoral working group, said the organization plans to do more outreach and voter registration drives in southeast Queens. Cabán secured about one-third of the vote in the area.
“The fact that we got within a hair of winning shows there is a good, strong progressive base in Queens,” Dale said. “But there are certain people we need to talk to more outside of electoral politics. We definitely need to go into other areas of Queens, particularly southeast Queens, and talk to them more.”
DSA looks to challenge incumbents whom they view as “not standing for the people,” and one of the biggest markers of that is whether they have ties to real estate, Dale said.
“One of the biggest things to DSA is housing,” Dale said. “Anyone who accepts copious amounts of money from real estate or shows consistent support for real estate policies that harm the middle class and lower class — those are the biggest things we look out for.”
A central focus of the Cabán campaign was its refusal to accept money from real estate or corporations.
The group also looks for candidates that more closely reflect the diversity of the community they would represent, Dale added.
Ocasio-Cortez is the first Latina to represent her district in Congress. Had Cabán won the district attorney race, she would have become the first Latina and first openly queer person to assume the role.
There’s also a desire to challenge incumbents perceived as being too closely aligned with the political machine.
“I think there’s some element of, well you have some power so you’re part of the problem,” said a political insider in Democratic politics.
The incumbents vulnerable to future challenges pushed back on the notion that they can’t appeal to a so-called progressive surge in Queens.
“I’m proud to be an activist member of the Assembly, fighting for the progressive values that my constituents care about,” Simotas said in a statement. “Whether it’s holding big corporations accountable, working with victims to hold landmark hearings about sexual harassment in the capitol, or modernizing antiquated rape laws to protect women, I’m proud of what I’ve already accomplished and look forward to achieving even more.”
Maloney also touted her record when asked about an upcoming primary challenge.
“After so many years of making noise and passing laws that promote equality, clean government, consumer protection, women’s rights and more, it is gratifying to see more candidates join me in embracing these values,” Maloney said in a statement. “Debate and discussion make our party stronger and are exactly what we need to win in 2020.”
DenDekker said in an interview he will focus on his legislative record and ties to the community in the upcoming primary. The Jackson Heights native ran unopposed in the 2016 and 2018 primaries and general elections.
“It’s funny people call me the establishment — I don’t know how you got that,” he said, referencing that he was a sanitation worker before entering politics.
DenDekker referenced several bills he said would demonstrate his voting pattern aligns with his constituents, including one introduced this year that would implement a cigarette butt recycling program.
He also introduced a bill that was signed into law in 2010 that allows people charged with an offense to make a call to any number in the United States to either obtain legal counsel or contact relatives. Before the bill’s passage, only local calls were allowed.
“So I thought that was pretty progressive 11 years ago,” DenDekker said of the bill.
A spokesperson for Nolan did not return requests for comment.