How Did a Loyal Democrat Become an Enemy of the Progressives? – The New York Times

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The political ad began with images of Michael D. Cohen and Harvey Weinstein, and the notion that as long as you had money and influence, you could “do whatever you want in the city.”

The message from Tiffany Cabán seemed clear: There was one set of rules for the privileged, and another far more punitive code for everyone else. And if she were elected as Queens district attorney, she would change that.

But Ms. Cabán had another target in mind: Melinda R. Katz, the Queens borough president.

Ms. Cabán and her progressive Democratic supporters sought to cast Ms. Katz as the villain, a product of old-school machine politics, rife with money and influence. That image, echoed in many social media posts, stuck.

In a matter of weeks, Ms. Katz’s 25 years as a public servant representing Queens — first as a member of the State Assembly, the City Council and now as borough president — had been diminished, her political career reduced to a symbol of everything wrong with the Democratic machine.

Ms. Katz seems to have withstood the attacks: A recount of the June 25 Democratic primary ended on Thursday with Ms. Katz slightly widening her lead over Ms. Cabán to roughly 60 votes. The results are expected to be certified on Tuesday, although legal challenges from Ms. Cabán’s lawyers are still pending.

Whether Ms. Katz wins the primary or not, she said she remained hurt and angered by her portrayal, and insisted that she was not beholden to the Queens County organization.

“My accomplishments are my own. I am my own woman,” Ms. Katz said in an interview. “I started like her,” she said, referring to Ms. Cabán. “I started running against the organization, which was an old boys’ club.”

Indeed, Ms. Katz began her political career by running against the Queens Democratic Party candidate in 1994 to win a seat in the Assembly.

Once in Albany, she took on women’s health issues and sponsored a law to extend the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse that was opposed by the Roman Catholic Church.

“I stood up at age 28 against the Catholic Church. I stood up against insurance companies who said women shouldn’t have access to health care,” Ms. Katz said. “I did all of this 25 years ago.”

Bruce Gyory, a political consultant and adjunct professor of political science at the University at Albany, was a lobbyist when Ms. Katz was first elected to the Assembly. He remembers her as “a challenger of the Queens organization,” and “a smart, substantive assemblywoman” who navigated toward “what would be called progressive approaches today.”

If Ms. Katz becomes district attorney, she “would be a reformer with a small ‘r’,” Mr. Gyory said, adding that he believed she “would try to bring substantive or evolutionary change to that office.”

But for a new wave of political reformers such as Yuh-Line Niou, an assemblywoman from Manhattan who previously served as chief of staff for a Queens assemblyman, Ron Kim, the idea of Ms. Katz as a reformer seems distant.

“I wasn’t around. I was like in third grade,” said Ms. Niou, who endorsed Ms. Cabán. “It’s not that you run against the machine once. It’s about persistently changing the system.”

If Ms. Katz wins, “there’s no guarantee there will be a different voice or different perspective at the table,” Ms. Niou said. “With Tiffany, it is a guaranteed change. She has taken a stance on so many issues that people who ran against her had to move their stance.”

It would be hard for Ms. Katz or her supporters to dispute that she benefits from her relationship with the county Democratic Party. During the recount process, Ms. Katz has received considerable help from two key lawyers for the county party, Frank Bolz and Michael Reich, at no charge. (The Working Families Party is also spending money on Ms. Cabán’s behalf.)

“I don’t think that’s a label she can dispute,” Robert F. Holden, a councilman from Queens who endorsed Ms. Katz, said of her being a machine politician. “But I don’t think Melinda checked with the county as to whether she would run. Melinda does what she feels is right for her constituents.”

Ms. Katz, 53, a mother of two boys, lives in the same house in Forest Hills that she grew up in. When she was 3, her mother was killed by a drunken driver and she and her three siblings were raised by her father, David Katz, the founder of the Queens Symphony Orchestra.

Being raised by a single father was not the norm then, and Ms. Katz remembers feeling like a victim for much of her childhood. “I always felt like something wrong happened and it wasn’t fair,” said Ms. Katz. “I now realize people go through a lot worse things.”

Ms. Katz lived down the street from Alan G. Hevesi, then just at the beginning of a 35-year career in public service as an assemblyman, the New York City comptroller and the state comptroller for four years, before leaving office in disgrace after pleading guilty to fraud.

Ms. Katz volunteered for his victorious campaign for city comptroller, and he decided to support her for his old Assembly seat. The county organization threw its weight behind a different candidate, but Ms. Katz knocked on doors and pulled out a tight victory.

She unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1998, losing the Democratic primary to Anthony Weiner, and also fell short in the 2009 primary for city comptroller to John Liu.

When Ms. Katz announced last year that she would run for district attorney, critics said that she had never expressed much interest in criminal justice and was just looking for her next job because she is barred by the term-limits law from running for a third consecutive term as borough president.

Ms. Cabán saw other motives, accusing Ms. Katz of running to “keep the status quo, take money from real estate and protect the machine.”

Ms. Katz strongly disputed that characterization, noting that her bid for city comptroller in 2009 came without her party’s backing.

She also asserted that her campaign for district attorney grew organically out of support from the largely black community of Southeast Queens, the residents most affected by the unjust portions of the criminal justice system that she wants to change.

Using her experience as an executive with close ties to the community from her time as Queens borough president, Ms. Katz said she would be able to marshal support for changes such as eliminating cash bail and not charging people for minor crimes such as possessing small amounts of marijuana.

She said that her relationships with borough leaders would help those reforms stick in Queens, a place with a reputation for law and order that was enforced by Richard A. Brown for almost 30 years, until his death in May.

Since the election, Ms. Katz has been back at the Queens borough president’s office. On the day she met with a reporter for an interview, she held a land-use hearing. She hurried away after an hour, wrapping up her half-eaten sandwich to take back to the office.

Ms. Katz said she is confident that after the recount, she will be the Democratic nominee for Queens district attorney.

But what if she’s not?

“I do exactly what I did today,” she said. “I work.”

Vivian Wang contributed reporting.